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Virginians Brave Isabel to Shop New Mall

Sideways rain couldn't keep shoppers from the grand opening of an upscale shopping plaza (search).

In fact, the lure of items like batteries and raincoats -- and for some adventuresome shoppers, an unexpected day off -- meant an opening-day windfall for the area's newest retail outlet.

Before it could open for the first time, The Sharper Image (search) began taking calls from battery hunters discouraged by empty shelves at the usual places as Hurricane Isabel (search) was coming ashore Thursday.

The D-sized alkalines went first. By noon, the store had sold 60 twin-packs, 10 flashlights and all six of its "11-in-1 Survivor Lanterns," combining radio, television, lights and a siren, among other gadgets.

The mall drew an estimated 7,500 people on its opening day, some seeking raincoats and batteries, some fleeing southeast Virginia and the Outer Banks (search) of North Carolina, and others taking advantage of an unexpected day off.

"I needed a raincoat and I ended up buying rain pants too," said Chris Bennett, 29, of Richmond. He and his wife, Jill, also cashed in on a two-for-one deal on camping chairs at one of the mall's anchors, Galyan's sporting goods.

"There's something kind of adventuresome about going out in a hurricane," Bennett said.

At Galyan's and The Sharper Image, revenues Thursday beat the stores' sales goals, with the sports store shedding 150 raincoats in the first hour, and selling out of lanterns and propane-burning items.

Though much of the rest of Stony Point Fashion Park closed at 2 p.m., Galyan's manager Walter Barker said the store would stay open as long as there were enough customers. As he spoke, the lights in the 84,000 square-foot store flickered.

By Thursday night, more than 1.6 million customers in Virginia had lost power.

At the Build-A-Bear Workshop, the most common bear's name chosen by customers was Isabel, and many of the personalized stuffed critters left the store in bear rain gear, said Karen McDonald, a spokeswoman for Taubman Centers Inc., of Bloomfield, Mich., which owns the new mall and 30 others in 13 states.

The storm dampened the mall's ceremonial opening, with the cancellation of a morning tailgate party and ribbon-cutting. Still, living statues -- including one woman posing as a vine, and a man painted to look like a white ceramic knight -- dotted stores and areas of the courtyard that were covered with awnings.

McDonald said about 65 percent of the parking lot was full at 11 a.m.

The outdoor, 690,000-foot dog-friendly plaza has been highly anticipated as one of two upscale malls to open in the Richmond area this fall.

Sheri Collins, 39, brought her 15-year-old daughter to take a look Thursday when she realized that, as a state employee, she had the day off.

"I wouldn't have taken a day off to do this, but it's nice," Davis said. "A little rain's not going to kill you."

Stationary supplier Papyrus (search) kept its double doors open throughout the morning, and saleswoman Veronica Davis said most people who ducked in to escape the rain were remarkably chipper.

"This really is pretty fun," Davis said. "Children have been playing in the fountain, because, I guess their parents figure they're wet anyway, and it's a warm rain, so they won't catch a cold," Davis said. "It's like that Gene Kelly (search) song, 'Singing in the Rain."'

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