Some smaller stores prosper in blizzards It pays to stay open: This winter has not been kind to most retailers. But many neighborhood merchants have enjoyed a surge in business from those who typically drive to the mall.

February 20, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

For a while there, it was 1905 again for neighborhood stores.

Customers came on foot. Lots of them. You knew everybody. Chitchat was as brisk as the sales. Wal-Mart and the regional mall were far, far away.

For most retailers, the winter has been an unqualified curse. But for many small stores near people's homes, 50 inches of snow so far has brought welcome if brief bursts of comfort.

"Instead of running all around to malls, people shopped at what was convenient and close," said Sonny Morstein, president of Morstein's Jewelers in Baltimore's Federal Hill section. "When we were open, neighborhood stores, they did have a boom."

Most retail winners of the 1990s are the bigger, the farther, the centralized, the parking-dependent. Perhaps it's a measure of malls' and power centers' clout that it took an act of nature to temporarily hinder them.

"Overall, the storms have hurt," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "When you're literally closed for a couple of days, you're just going to lose sales."

But some neighborhood stores said sales soared by 20 percent or more during recent snowy weeks.

"When we have it, it's very good," said Paul Pratt of Schneider Paint & Hardware in Baltimore's Roland Park section. "This year, during the blizzard when everybody ran out of shovels, we saw people we'd never seen before."

Corner bars and restaurants did well, too.

One snowy night last month at Cafe Hon "was kind of like a block party" for the restaurant's Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore, said manager Rose Lansing. "Everybody who came in the door knew everybody else because they were neighbors. Because people weren't driving, they were having an after-dinner drink when ordinarily they wouldn't have one."

Don't get them wrong, small merchants will tell you. The snowstorms haven't brought just frosting on the cake. Just as customers couldn't drive to the shopping centers, supply trucks couldn't make it to the stores.

"When people can't get out, they go to what's within walking distance," said Jerry Busch, owner of the Sherwood Grocery in Baltimore County. "We were busy until we ran out of the usuals -- milk, eggs, bread and toilet paper."

Tallies of Maryland retail sales for January and February won't arrive for a while. But national January results show how badly the weather chilled big chains.

Wal-Mart's and Sears' sales increases for the month were among their smallest in several years. Same-store sales fell by 4.3 percent at J. C. Penney. Same-store sales at the May Co., owner of Hecht's, rose by just 0.7 percent.

The fact that many big stores had lackluster Christmas results and then were hurt by storms added urgency to last weekend's holiday sales, Mr. Saquella said.

Meanwhile, back in the neighborhood, mom and pop hope that some of the snow-spiked business won't be completely transitory.

"Our hardware store sold out of salt and shovels," Federal Hill's Mr. Morstein said. "The restaurants, one of them ran out of beer. They were scrounging around to get food and alcohol. It was wonderful.

"People who probably wouldn't have spent time in the area found themselves discovering us."

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