It's practically summer, which means it's time to fire up the grill, break out the bikinis, and, if you're a big corporate retailer in NYC, blast air conditioning out into the street like the world's your ashtray. Despite a well-intentioned law designed to punish businesses that do this, many New York stores are welcoming the warm weather by throwing their doors open wide and cranking the A.C. up full blast. Yesterday, the frigid air blasting out of Hollister was so intense you could feel it across the street.
The city passed legislation in 2008 creating fines for A.C.-happy establishments larger than 4,000 square feet and chains with five or more stores in the city. If a store is warned to close its doors and does not comply, it's slapped with a $200 fine; if a repeat offense occurs in the next 18 months the fine is doubled to $400.
Many retailers are simply ignoring the law. In July of 2010 the Department of Consumer Affairs fined nine stores for violating the rules. All told, since the law went into effect the DCA has issued 348 warnings, and a mere 25 violations. Take a stroll through a shopping neighborhood of SoHo these days, and it's clear the threat of a $200 fine isn't much of a deterrent.
We confronted the managers at several SoHo retailers to ask them why their doors were wide open with the A.C. blasting, and got a variety of responses. Hollister, Armani Exchange, Oakley, Ralph Lauren, Club Monaco and Lucky Brand all declined to comment on their choice to blast air conditioning out onto the street, referring us to corporate headquarters or pleading ignorance of the regulations.
But a few managers and supervisors were more forthright, and cited business considerations in the choice to open or close doors: a manager at Nine West explained that the air conditioning "helps drive up traffic. It makes a big difference; it's more inviting." A manager at Forever 21 echoed that sentiment: "They're open for marketing and to attract customers." Another manager at Aldo's joined the chorus: "It's a way to welcome customers, basically a way to invite them into the store."
When asked if they were aware of the law, most of the managers looked vaguely uncomfortable and maintained their own innocence. "I had no idea," the manager at Forever 21 insisted fervently. But a few minutes later, when told that a different Forever 21 location had been fined last year for a violation, she said: "Right, it was on 14th Street. I was there when it happened, actually." A supervisor at Diesel mentioned that he was aware of a warning last year, but they still keep the doors open "for business."
A few managers feigned concern for the environment, but conceded that at the end of the day, it was the paper kind of green that counted. A manager at Mango explained that he had personal reservations about the energy consumption, but the management of the corporation doesn't take that into account; it's "unfortunate," he stated, "that everything revolves around revenue." A manager at Timberland expressed a similar sentiment: the store knows it's economically and environmentally costly, but enticing customers overrides these reservations. Even the choice to close the doors is financially motivated: "When it gets warmer we close the doors. Air conditioning isn't strong enough, and we have to try to save in any way that we can."
City Councilmember Gale Brewer spearheaded the legislation back in 2010, and she's disappointed by the lack of enforcement. "It's a huge problem in my neighborhood," says Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side. "People pretend they don't know about it, they say the don't know it's the law, they close the door for a little bit, and then I come back and it's open. We need more enforcement, but we need to do a lot more education. If people see over and over again they're going to get a fine and bad publicity, like with restaurant inspections, it makes a difference."
Brewer also floated the idea of requiring business owners to participate in "some kind of grading system tracking who keeps their doors open, like with restaurants." For now, your best bet is to report any A.C. scofflaws to 311.