Storm may be mixed blessing for retailers

CHICAGO — The winter storm that ripped into the Eastern U.S. over the weekend, dumping several feet of snow in some places, apparently kept late Christmas shoppers away from the stores in droves but could as yet turn out to be a mixed blessing for the nation's retailers.

Just how bad was the damage? Estimates vary, but Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics Business Weather Intelligence, said at least $2 billion in retail sales were lost due to the storm.

"That is a significant portion of Super Saturday sales that will not be recovered," he said. "Recovery will be seen most at retailers with 'must-have' items" but, he predicted, "the industry as a whole will not be able to completely make up for so many lost shopping hours in so many heavily populated centers."

He noted that sales on the last Saturday before Christmas typically account for about $15 billion, making it one of the top shopping days of the year.

"While traffic outside of the Northeast was reportedly up compared to last year, approximately one-third of all Super Saturday sales typically come from the Northeast," he said.

However, some school and government closures could lead to what amounts to an extra weekend shopping day for millions. At the same time, the storm could well produce a last-minute boost in online sales for Internet-only and brick-and-mortar retailers alike.

"As with everything it depends on where you are in the marketplace," said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "Mall traffic is curtailed, but online shopping should get a big boost. That means fewer, but higher-value, transactions."

He noted, however, that snowed-in shoppers will have fewer choices because those deep discounts on store racks are often not available online, where supplies of bargain merchandise run out more quickly.

"The deadline has passed for inexpensive shipping options," he said. "Shoppers forced to select express shipping will be a bonanza for online retailers, who often charge premiums for express services that don't impose as much in additional cost as they charge."

Further, late in the season online sales will also boost express shippers like UPS and FedEx, Morici said.

Many people were already procrastinating before the storm hit, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation. As of the second week of December, the average person had completed just 46.7 percent of their holiday shopping. That is the lowest percentage since 2004, when the figure was 46.3 percent.

Moreover, almost 42 million people, or 19.1 percent of the total, had not even started their shopping as of that week, with just 8.6 percent reporting theirs was all done.

"It is never ideal to have this type of weather right before Christmas," said Scott Krugman, spokesman for NRF. "But the fact is, this was a regional event. Mom-and-pop shops in the Northeast will be hurt, but from a national perspective it is not going to move the needle that much."