The snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast, closing malls and snowing in shoppers, spelled trouble for retailers, but elsewhere in the country stores saw a strong turnout on the last weekend before Christmas.
Eager to win business from snowed-in easterners, retail Web sites including Macy's and J.C. Penney were offering free express shipping Sunday. Traffic to retail Web sites spiked all weekend. Elsewhere in the country, crowds looking for discounts found some, but far less than the 60 to 70 percent off sales they wanted.
Retailers head into the home stretch hoping the storm leaves pent-up demand that will give them one last gift.
A snowstorm the Saturday before Christmas, often the busiest shopping day of the year, is about as bad as it gets for retailers, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group. But there's still time.
"If they're not buying it online, they've got a plan to go out now when they do get dug out," Cohen said. "They'll hit the stores with a little more of a method to their madness, so all is not lost."
"Super Saturday" usually accounts for $15 billion worth of sales nationwide, according to Scott Bernhardt of weather research firm Planalytics. Stores certainly did not hit that number this year, though Bernhardt said he wasn't sure how much they missed by.
Retailers were still totaling the impact of the snowstorm Sunday. The first hard estimates are due from ShopperTrak on Tuesday.
Bernhardt said it's not yet clear how many stores closed, though many did around the Washington, D.C., region, which got more than 25 inches of snow.
Mall operator Taubman Centers closed four of its 24 centers early Saturday, including Fair Oaks in Fairfax, Va., and The Mall at Short Hills in Short Hills, N.J. Both stores reported an uptick in traffic Sunday and by the afternoon, the Fairfax mall was as busy as a normal Sunday before Christmas, the company said.
The storm that stretched from the Carolinas to New England caused about one-third of Toys R Us stores to cut hours, but sales weren't as bad as expected because people got out to shop before the storm hit, CEO Jerry Storch said. Online sales also rose.
He said retailers had been expecting a big shopping burst this week but with the storm, it will be even more frenzied, so the toy store chain is increasing staffing.
"There's always that feeling 'Oh I could just do it tomorrow' when Christmas is at the end of the week," he said of shoppers. "Now you add in this storm."
Traffic was heavy and the parking lots close to full at Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y., Saturday afternoon as stinging, blowing snow started to snarl roads. The weather prompted shoppers to get out to stores before the storm hit.
"We went out early, and we're going home early," said Mike Kimball of Queens, though he didn't expect it would change his planned spending of $3,000 for the season on family, friends and business associates.
Shoppers who stayed home drove a big spike in online shopping. Retail Web traffic peaked at 2.9 million visitors Saturday night, according to the Akamai Retail Net Usage Index. That was up from 1.9 million on the Saturday before Christmas in 2008, though that day — Dec. 20 — was closer to Christmas than this year.
Retailers such as Saks Inc. and Amazon.com offered extended deadlines to receive items by Christmas and free shipping.
Laura Gurski, a partner in the retail practice of management consultant A.T. Kearney, said she thought more retailers would do the same.
"I think they're going to have to, particularly those that were not able to drive the volume they needed to because of the weather," she said.
Online spending remains a bright spot. Online sales grew 14.4 percent after Black Friday through Dec. 12, according to a release Sunday from MasterCard Advisor's SpendingPulse, which estimates sales in all payment forms, including cash and checks.
Data from MasterCard Advisor's SpendingPulse shows that most holiday sectors, including online sales, footwear and men's apparel, registered improving growth rates since the Thanksgiving weekend, after merchants had struggled with weak sales earlier in November. However, women's apparel and luxury, excluding jewelry, remain challenging despite a slight pickup in December, while consumer electronics sales showed slower growth.
Beyond the northeast, store traffic was up at malls owned by General Growth Properties Inc., and should stay heightened through Thursday, said Wally Brewster, senior vice president for marketing and communications. The company, which has more than 220 malls, figures about half of its shoppers are last-minute ones, up 10 percent from last year.
More people are holding out for deals and some will get them, he said, although most likely not as steep as last year's discounts.
Chicagoan Wil Snodgrass, 49, said was hoping for deals of 75 percent off, rather than the 50 percent sales he was seeing Saturday at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago..
"They had everything we were looking for, just not at the right prices," Snodgrass said. "Normally, if there hadn't been a Christmas deadline, we would have waited until it went further off."