At the Dimond Center, the first big Anchorage mall to reopen, stores are ready but customers are few

Barry Olibrice walks into a store at the Dimond Center on Tuesday, April 28. He says he likes being able to feel items before buying them, which has brought him back two days in a row. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Dimond Center advertises itself as the largest retail space in Alaska, covering the equivalent of eight and a half city blocks. On a normal pre-pandemic business day, thousands come to the South Anchorage mall for bowling, ice skating, movies, and old-fashioned shopping.

On Tuesday, though, the second day it was open after the coronavirus closure, things were mostly quiet. 

Only about a third of the stores were open. Asad Raja sat in an electric massage chair, playing games on his phone next to the jewelry stand that he runs. 

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“There is hardly any traffic at the mall, but at least it’s open. Not too much but a little bit, but starting slowly,” he said.  

Bill Carter and Patricia Roehl look over an empty ice rink at the Dimond Center. They were later asked to leave the center for not having masks (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

There was a small surge in traffic on Monday, the first day the mall opened, he said, but it had died down a bit since. But, he said, he likes being back at work anyway 

“It feels better to get out of the house and finally work, but we’re just hoping that things will get better, and we’re excited to be here in the mall,” he said. 

Bill Carter drove in from Eagle River Tuesday specifically to support local retailers. He wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap as he looked over the empty ice arena. 

“I’m disappointed, I thought there’d be more people, I really did, I thought this place would be buzzing, but this place is still pretty empty…I think it’s gonna be a slow process, I think people are still gun shy,” he said. 

There’s also a new reality to get used to when it comes to retail shopping. Customers are required to wear masks when entering the stores. Mall manager Bob Dye said security guards gave out the mall’s entire supply of 400 masks on Monday.

On Tuesday, guards were having to ask customers like Carter, who wasn’t wearing a mask, to leave and come back with one so they could comply with the shopping rules. 

There were other reminders of the new pandemic reality as well. Stickers plastered around the linoleum floors reminded people to keep their six-foot social distance, and hand sanitizer dispensers were ubiquitous. 

At Habitat Housewares, owner Bekki Weaver put out one-way arrows for the entrance and exit outside of her shop. She requires customers to take off gloves and apply hand sanitizer before entering, she said.

Habitat Housewares owner and manager Bekki Weaver waits outside the store. Arrows mark separate entrance and exits into the store. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

A timer also sits on the checkout counter, set on a perpetual one-hour countdown, to remind employees to sanitize workstations, equipment, screens, doorknobs, restrooms, and other high-touch areas. It isn’t fun to sanitize things you just cleaned.

“But it’s so important, we keep doing it,” she said. 

Despite the challenges for store-owners, Mall manager Dye said that he was excited about the first day’s numbers and was hoping for a gradual return to normalcy. Forty  years in the business have taught him that businesses want to be open if they can, he said. He thinks all of the locally-owned businesses in the mall have reopened, while some of the national retailers are waiting for inspections and permission from company representatives. 

“If you look at business across the board in America, small business dominates…They don’t have these humongous lines of credit that some of these big national retailers have,” he said. Keeping them open means keeping them alive, he said.

While he hasn’t had to make lease payment concessions just yet, he expects those requests to start coming soon. 

Christopher French waits for customers at Mrs. Fields Cookies and TCBY. He says that sales have effectively gone “through the roof” since opening for customers. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Keeping the books balanced is just one part of staying open.  Christopher French, the franchisee owner of Mrs. Fields Cookies and TCBY, said that he’s fighting another issue: the loss of employees. 

“I ended up losing everybody. I’m here by myself right now, until I can build up enough funds to bring people back to work,” he said. 

Some employees were scared of getting sick, even with the new safety protocols, something he understands. Other business owners privately mentioned the problem of workers finding unemployment payments better-paying than retail jobs at the center, though none said that had prevented them from reopening. 

Still, French was optimistic and had seen some hopeful signs. 

“What was really exciting is since we opened up, we had our first mother’s day cookie cake order, so we’re selling the dozen cookies, pre-selling them for Mother’s Day, so we’re excited about having any kind of business coming through the door,” he said. 

But keeping the business running can only last so long without customers, who are so far only are only trickling in. 

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.