The last Saturday of shopping before Christmas, usually one of the busiest days of the year for retailers, was snowed out on most of the East Coast by blizzard-like conditions that stretched from the Carolinas to the New England states.
Many retailers were open but crowds were sparse on a day stores count on for a successful season.
Treacherous roads and near white-out conditions kept many shoppers away from shopping malls and other stores. For retailers hoping for a better holiday season than last year's dismal sales, the bad weather was especially painful.
"You are looking at your busiest day of the year and taking it away," said Steven Aarons, manager of Barstons Child Play, a toy store in Washington.
Forecasts for the Washington region called for up to 20 inches of snow. A heavy coat was already on the ground by the time most stores opened around midmorning.
Compounding problems were snow-covered roads and spotty public transportation. Shopping malls were especially affected by bad roads. In Washington, the Metro subway system shut down above-ground stations in the early afternoon, effectively cutting off rail service to many big suburban shopping centers.
In the Friendship Heights section of the city, usually a bustling retail area with big department stores and upscale shops, most foot traffic came from work crews scraping away snow and spreading salt. Some big stores opened on time, but others remained dark after their posted opening hours.
Some extra shopping Friday night
The King of Prussia Mall outside of Philadelphia opened on time at 8 a.m., but traffic was down significantly at the complex's 365 stores and 40 restaurants, according to a spokesman. The mall's traffic did get a boost Friday night from people wary of the coming storm.
The holiday shopping season so far has been mildly encouraging for retailers who have suffered due to high unemployment and the weak economy that have made consumers reluctant to spend. Most reports put spending slightly above last year's levels.
At Tysons Corner Center, a mega-mall in the Washington region, only about half of the stores were open by midday and customer traffic was light. Jeff Hernandez, manager of a stationary store, said he wasn't able to open until noon and would likely close before the mall shuts down later tonight.
"I didn't think it was worth it," to stay open, he said.
It's still unclear how the storm will affect sales later in the week and whether consumers who stayed home Saturday would shift their shopping to Sunday. Much of the worst weather was expected to be over by late Saturday in the Washington region but last into Sunday morning farther north.
The Saturday before Christmas usually accounts for $15 billion worth of sales nationwide, according to Scott Bernhardt of weather research firm Planalytics. The storm's current track means it will likely impact about a quarter of the U.S. population. Those that do shop will likely make their trips short, he said.
'Impulse buying' unlikely
"They are going to dash in and dash out. They aren't going to do any impulse buying," he said.
The effect on retailers is likely to be less than it would if the snow hit even later in the season, said Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers. They still have several days to make up the sales. And while the storm hit the heavily populated East Coast, most of the rest of the nation was unaffected by bad weather.
The storm didn't lead Niemira to change his estimate that November and December spending would rise 1 percent from last year.
Online shopping also could get a boost as consumers buy from home rather than brave the bad weather.
"People may just sit at home and shop," said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a global management consultant.
In New York, shoppers were trying to wrap up ahead of the storm.
At Manhattan Mall, a few blocks away from Macy's flagship store in New York, stores like J.C. Penney were still bustling at midday, when snow hadn't yet materialized. But even shoppers who took the train in to the city were wary.
Natalie McCann, of Edison, New Jersey, said she would probably cut short her annual trip into the city on the last Saturday because of the building storm. But it wasn't the snow that was keeping her from spending big on gifts.
"I'm just not that enthusiastic this year," said McCann, 47, who says she's cutting her spending significantly to about $750.