Key shopping day snowed out by storm

Most shoppers stay home

stores and malls close early

December 20, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | andrea.walker@baltsun.com

The snow scared away most shoppers on a day that usually draws some of the biggest crowds of the holiday season. But the nearly empty stores were exactly what drew Officer Lynn Wall to White Marsh Mall on Saturday.

"I figured the mall wouldn't be crowded, so this would be the best day to go," said Wall, who as a police officer is used to driving in inclement weather. She and her teenage daughters hit clothing stores H&M, Wet Seal and Forever 21 by noon.

Retailers wish there were more like her.

The treacherous weather proved a disaster for retailers as most shoppers chose to stay home on what typically is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Stores and malls were left barren as only the bravest shoppers ventured out.

By afternoon, with Gov. Martin O'Malley declaring a state of emergency, most retailers had closed. Malls owned by General Growth Properties, which include White Marsh, The Mall in Columbia and Towson Town Center, closed at 1 p.m. Arundel Mills went dark at 2 p.m. Security Square Mall stayed open, but by 2 p.m. most of the stores had closed.

Charm City Run sent out an e-mail saying it wouldn't open its Bel Air and Annapolis stores and "couldn't remember the last time we had to do this."

The storm could not have come at a worse time for retailers.

"First we had the Great Recession, now ... we have the Great Blizzard," said Tom Sequella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "And it's going to hurt."

The National Retail Federation is forecasting a 1 percent drop in sales for the holiday season. The snowstorm will have more of a regional impact, so the trade group isn't changing its prediction, spokesman Scott Krugman said. But he said the storm would hit businesses along the East Coast hard.

"If you're a retailer, you certainly don't want to lose a Saturday, especially the Saturday before Christmas," Krugman said.

Handbags in the City in Harbor East said the pain was eased some by guests from nearby hotels, who clearly had cabin fever. But owner George Sakellaris said the snow wasn't good news. He closed at 5 p.m., three hours early, figuring that people wouldn't be so adventurous once the sun went down.

"It is a very bad time for it to snow," Sakellaris said. "What is probably going to happen now is people will be in more of a time crunch, and it will get busier three days before Christmas."

Retailers hope shoppers will crowd the stores in the final days before Christmas. About 84 percent of consumers still had shopping to do, and 47 percent hadn't started, according to a survey released Friday by the research firm NPD Group.

"This is a crucial weekend," said Lisa Bisenius, general manager for White Marsh and Towson Town Center malls. "We just hope to make it up in the days that follow."

People crowded the stores Friday when they heard of the approaching storm. Parking was hard to come by at Towson Town Center. At the Target at Mondawmin Mall, people were buying Christmas gifts along with their milk and bread, said Kevin Lewis, an executive team leader for the retailer. He hoped people would make up for lost time once the snow had passed.

"We should be really busy then," he said.

At The Collector's Castle at Towson Town Center, a temporary store that sells sports memorabilia and collectibles for six weeks at Christmas, owner Bull Pullin pondered the effect of losing his most profitable day of sales. He thought the snow would simply delay the last-minute shopping onslaught, and he was arranging for extra workers for the final days of holiday sales.

"I think there's going to be a panic, and it's not 100 percent certain that we can accommodate everyone," Pullin said.

Many who ventured to the stores had snow gear, not Christmas shopping, on their minds. Pranay Parikh, a doctor who lives near Druid Hill Park and was shopping at Target, knew what his family needed most: a sled, brownie mix and ingredients for chicken soup. "We got everything to enjoy the snow," he said.

Snow gear and food were the products of choice at Walmart in Catonsville, where the parking lot was half full at noon. Walmart stores stayed open despite the snow.

Katreal Paige said he'd made his way through the snow to exchange a pair of boots - "these hurt my feet" - and to pick up some dish detergent.

As many shoppers turn to the Internet, Krugman noted that some retailers are offering discounts on expedited shipping.

"If this was 10 years ago, we would probably be in a much more dire situation," Krugman said. "Given the promise we've seen from online retailing, I think it gives retailers a huge strategic advantage when faced with the unknown - like weather."

Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland, said many shoppers will choose to pay hefty rates for shipping to get gifts delivered on time. But that revenue will go to express carriers rather than retailers, he said.

Retailers did make some money from shoppers who braved the storm before the malls closed.

Earl Lewis of Perry Hall, who hadn't started Christmas shopping, figured he didn't have much choice. Plus, he drives a Jeep, which would help in navigating snowy roads. He spent about $200 at White Marsh Mall, finishing about half of his holiday shopping.

Wilma Sinar, 58, of Edgewater was just "a little embarrassed" to be found at the mall on a snowy day. She was looking for snow boots but stopped by Toys "R" Us to get some gifts.

By afternoon, she was ready to return to the safety of her home - especially after hearing that the malls would probably close early.

"I think I'd be much more comfortable at home wrapping gifts and drinking hot chocolate," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Robert Little and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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