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'We can't survive without help,' airport retailer says

International Shoppes operates about 20 duty-free stores in

International Shoppes operates about 20 duty-free stores in three terminals at Kennedy Airport. This is shop is located in Terminal 8. Credit: International Shoppes

The Long Island-based owner of about 20 duty-free shops at Kennedy Airport has laid off a handful of employees and reduced the work schedules of others as sales drop because of the coronavirus.

“Operations like us won’t be able to survive this without help,” said Matthew J. Greenbaum, vice president of International Shoppes in Valley Stream, which operates duty-free and cosmetics stores in six U.S. airports. “This is a matter of survival for us.”

With the number of air travelers slashed by canceled flights and virus fears, International Shoppes and other airport retailers are seeking changes to their rental agreements that would allow them to make reduced payments or delayed payments.

A local congressman and state senator on Wednesday asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to do just that for Kennedy Airport retailers.

“As the coronavirus spreads, we urge the Port Authority to take any reasonable measures to help operators stay in business during this short-term turmoil,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) wrote in a letter to authority executive director Rick Cotton. “We have heard that you denied operators’ requests for rental discounts. We urge you to reconsider.”

Cotton has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Monday; he is in quarantine at his home, Cuomo said.

Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Albiez said Wednesday the agency has received the letter “and will be responding” to Meeks and Kaminsky.

International Shoppes has seen “a precipitous decline in revenue” since the last week in January because flights to and from China were canceled due to the coronavirus, Greenbaum said. The company’s duty-free stores at Kennedy Airport and Boston’s Logan International Airport have been hit hard.

“We are being significantly and very negatively impacted…We are very dependent on the Chinese traffic” in the duty-free stores, he said. “We need flexibility on our rent. We want to conserve cash, so we get through this.”

The family-owned business employs more than 500 people at Kennedy Airport and about 100 people at its headquarters and warehouse in Valley Stream. 

Besides layoffs and work schedule changes, International Shoppes is not filling open positions, negotiating with suppliers and offering price markdowns, according to Greenbaum.

“The Port Authority has been a long-standing partner of ours, and I do believe that ultimately they will do the right thing,” he said. “We’re just hoping that happens sooner rather than later.”

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