Melting snowdrifts liberate key retail element: shoppers

Better weather inspires a modest uptick in national store sales

March 05, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Last weekend's break from inclement weather had Steven Baum at Greetings & Readings seeing something his business had been sorely missing: customers.

Baum, president of the Loch Raven Plaza store that specializes in cards, gifts and books, said it was the first "normalized" weekend he'd seen in weeks.

"It still wasn't normal, but you're starting to see people coming out again," Baum said. "They were getting cagey from being locked in. You could see it in their eyes. Now their attitudes are different, their demeanor's different.

"When we start hitting the 50s this week, it has to make a difference. We're seeing every day that it's all coming back to normal, the pattern of people getting out and shopping again. We're seeing the sales going back up. Today was busier than yesterday."

Nationally, retail sales were up 0.2 percent for the week that ended March 1, as compared with the previous week, according to figures released yesterday by Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi.

Not an overly sharp increase, concedes Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, but a much-needed one for merchants on the East Coast, where pummeling snows and torrential rains wreaked havoc on profits and caused Presidents Day sales to be delayed at some malls and department stores - or scrapped altogether.

And the bad weather came on the heels of the worst Christmas shopping season since at least 1970, according to Bank of Tokyo figures. Same-store sales, a key measure of a retailer's health, rose only 0.5 percent for the November-December period, which accounts for nearly a quarter of retailers' annual revenue.

"That 0.2 percent is an average," Tolley said. "Many parts of the country weren't affected by the weather. ... On the East Coast, especially because we were hit so hard, we saw a higher bump in sales."

Sunday's 48 degrees and sunshine - practically balmy compared to the area's recent biting temperatures - had folks out in droves. Many of them headed to department stores and malls - anywhere they could buy something other than milk, bread, eggs and toilet paper, staples for inclement weather.

"Most people, especially in the Baltimore or D.C. area, were cooped up in their homes," Tolley said. "Last weekend was the first weekend that a lot of people got out of their homes and went shopping. They were going stir crazy, and they got out to browse."

It's no secret that weather can help - or hurt - the retail industry. When it's nice, people enjoy going out and spending money. When the weather's not so hot, folk tend to stay inside, watching DVDs or videos, which makes for sluggish sales.

"Whenever you have bad weather, your traffic's going to decrease," Tolley said. "Whenever you have to shut down, we're not talking about decreased sales, we're talking about no sales. With the weekend being the busiest time of the week to shop, not being open is critical to your weekly sales."

No need to tell that to Baum or other local retailers.

Tracey Morrison, a manager at Target in Bel Air, said she "definitely saw an increase in business" last weekend.

"Our guests are definitely thinking spring," Morrison said. "They were looking at patio furniture, things for Easter. I think everyone had cabin fever coming out from the snow and were excited to have a nice weekend to get things done."

At Towson Town Center, marketing manager Cheryl Sparks said she definitely attributes last weekend's brisk business to the weather.

And at White Marsh Mall, it seems customers came back in big numbers last weekend and the weekend before - despite the heavy rains.

"This was a very busy weekend," said Jessica Bloom, manager of retail marketing. "We had a lot of people here shopping. The food court was full. I was here this weekend as well as the weekend prior, and both of those weekends were busy."

Dick Otradovec, co-owner of Pal Creations, a kiosk business at White Marsh Mall that features Boyd Bears and hand-made wreaths, said business was excellent last weekend.

"The weather had a lot to do with it, definitely," said Otradovec, who has owned the business with his wife, Pat, for about 10 years. "The whole weekend in general was great."

Rosita Browne of Towson didn't shop last weekend but took daughters Shanese, 13, and Kamaria, 6, to White Marsh yesterday.

"I'm out first of all because I had cabin fever," Browne said. "The weather finally broke, and I couldn't take it anymore.

"Right now we're browsing, but we'll probably get some shopping in."

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