By Lisa Baertlein, Richa Naidu and Nivedita Balu
LOS ANGELES/CHICAGO (Reuters) - This time last year, shoppers on Chicago's Magnificent Mile were waiting for Louis Vuitton to debut its whimsical holiday window decorations. Now those same windows are hidden behind a wall of wood panels painted bright orange.
While still open for shoppers, stores like Gucci <PRTP.PA>, H&M <HMb.ST> and Nordstrom <JWN.N> are also boarded up after looters targeted the city's famed retail district in the spring and summer, when protests gripped more than 100 U.S. cities.
As security experts warn that the U.S. presidential election could spark renewed civil unrest, those stores remain clad in plywood as retailers seek to keep property and employees safe in the event street violence flares anew.
"You have to ask: 'Do we want to be safe?'" said Andy, 50, the owner of Vickie's Nail Salon. The Magnificent Mile shop was broken into and robbed during early morning mayhem that erupted after the police shooting of a young Black man in August.
Andy, declining to provide his full name, has kept plywood on his windows ever since. He also puts a panel over the front door at closing time. "Let's see how things turn out after the election. If we don't feel it's safe, then we'll have to keep boarding up every night."
Aon Plc <AON.N>, the world's largest insurance broker, told Reuters the majority of retailer clients it surveyed are considering boarding up stores because they are worried about looting around the election. Aon executive MaryAnne Burke said about 70% of these retailer clients did so during protests in May and June.
Many retailers including Gucci, H&M, Under Armour <UAA.N> and Apple <AAPL.O> declined to comment on their election security plans. More than two dozen security consultants, insurers, contractors and store employees told Reuters that companies are installing reinforced glass, hiring security guards or retaining on-call teams that barricade and board up buildings.
Retailers are on edge after raiders earlier this year smashed windows, stole merchandise and, at times, set stores ablaze in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Portland and other U.S. cities - often under the cover of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations that were rekindled by the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man.
Foot Locker <FL.N> in its quarterly report on Aug. 21, said it racked up $18 million in costs from "recent social unrest." Looters target sneaker sellers like Foot Locker because their products are easy to carry away and turn into cash.
After avoiding a commitment for weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump last week said he would accept a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the Nov. 3 presidential election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. But Trump has continued to make claims about voter fraud and raise doubts about election integrity.
"Companies operating in the United States should anticipate the risk of social unrest and political violence to remain elevated before, during and after the upcoming presidential election," Jonathan Wood, a lead analyst at specialist risk consultancy Control Risks, wrote in a recent assessment.
"You'd be foolish to think the worst is over. We all watch the news," said Bob Moraca, principal at Rock Security Group and former vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation.
Construction scaffolding provider Starr Industries sheltered Apple's all-glass "Cube" store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue behind heavy barricades and chain link fencing on June 1. It is now on standby for several companies with stores in that upscale section of New York City.
"Because of the election, they are worried that the same thing will happen," said Marian Bobelea, Starr's president. He would not say which companies retained on-call protection services.
Riot Glass founder Brad Campbell said the security glass maker and a sister firm that installs reinforced windows are rushing to finish jobs at hundreds of U.S. stores.
"Everybody wants something done before the election," said Campbell.
Alumatec Pacific Products, which provides roll-down doors used by large retailers, said it is seeing election-related demand from smaller businesses like liquor stores and marijuana shops.
Meanwhile, private security-guard provider Pinkerton <SECUb.ST> said its hiring is up 50% in Chicago this quarter.
Under Armour covered its Magnificent Mile store windows with clear protective film, store manager Kyle Domzalski told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Chicago police are running response drills and warning retailers to beef up security, Police Superintendent David Brown said.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Richa Naidu in Chicago and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Vanessa O'Connell and Cynthia Osterman)