RETAILING SLUMP Stores report slow business


Steve Ardis, manager of the Sunshine House water sports store in Marley Station, spins the cash register display around to show what business has been like lately.

All zeros.

It's 1:30 p.m. and the store hasn't had a sale since it opened three and a half hours ago.

"Scary slow," Mr. Ardis said. "That's the way I describe it. It's not that people come in and don't buy anything. It's just that they don't come in."

And at Severna Plaza, in response to a question about the number of customers she has seen in the Dress Barn lately, the shopkeeper said, "Clothes. I've seen a lot of clothes."

Anne Arundel County seems not to be much different from other counties when it comes to how retailers are faring in an economy besieged by uncertainties. The discount stores seem to be doing better than the upscale shops and retailers are marking a lot of merchandise down sooner than they did last year.

But one thing the county does show is that even residents of the most affluent areas are thinking twice before spending money on trendy clothes or glitzy accessories.

This doesn't necessarily spell a downturn for all retailers there, but it means everyone's fighting a lot harder for a sale.

"There's a lot of competition from other malls," said Faye Farah, manager of Le Chateau, a women's clothing store at Marley Station.

There's been speculation from some observers that perhaps the county has been the site of too much retail space and plans, and that overbuilding, not an economic downturn, is fueling retailers' troubles.

Over the past 10 years, an average of 676,000 square feet of retail space for an average of 40 stores has been added to the county each year, according to county statistician Alexander Speer. Roughly 2 million square feet came on in 1985 and more than 1 million square feet in 1986 when Marley Station was being built, Mr. Speer said.

Annapolis Mall, one of the region's strongest retail centers, announced in February that it was adding three department stores in a major expansion that will nearly double its size and further heighten competition in the county.

"Retailers are attracted to this area for a reason and they are putting their money where their mouth is," said Sam Mannitte, director of the county's Office of Economic Development.

"A lot of people have been crying about overbuilding, but I haven't seen it," he said. "There are some pockets like downtown Annapolis where the cost of getting in has been high."

Mr. Mannitte noted that off-price centers like Chesapeake Village in Queenstown near the Bay Bridge are doing well.

And although retail sales may be dipping, that segment of the economy is faring much better than housing and office space in the county, Mr. Mannitte said.

He said one office developer he knows has been inquiring about retailing in the county to diversify its portfolio.

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