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Retailers’ Big Drift: Scurrying to Recover From White Weekend

Retailers in the Northeast got clobbered by this week’s snowstorm, but have plans to replay promotions to try to recoup sales.

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NEW YORK — Can retailers recoup from the blizzard?

Not much. But they’re looking to put some heat back into the business by replaying spring sales and extending winter clearances offered for President’s Day and last weekend.

The weekend is normally one of the biggest volume periods for spring merchandise, but this year was a washout through the Northeast and Central regions due to the blanket of snow, 20 inches or more in many major cities. Store executives, forever optimists, are anticipating some decent mall traffic later, as the ice and snow get cleared, since many schools are on vacation break this week or next.

Retail sales in the Northeast dropped 6 percent Saturday, 20.5 percent Sunday, and 54.6 percent Monday, according to the ShopperTrak National Retail Sales Estimate. ShopperTrak also estimated retailers in the Northeast alone lost $422 million in GAFO (general merchandise, apparel, furniture and other store sales) for the three days. ShopperTrak provides store traffic systems for retailers, malls and casinos, and national benchmarks.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. which kept scores of stores closed in the Northeast and Central regions on Monday but reopened most of them on Tuesday, said President’s Day sales at impacted stores were being conducted Tuesday. And the chain is looking for another lift today through Saturday, with a preplanned credit sale, offering 10 percent off hardlines and 15 percent off softlines, if a customer uses the Sears credit card.

Kmart said 70 stores were closed Monday, all opened Tuesday, and that no makeup sales days were being planned, since specials were advertised on a roto insert that covered the week. However, Macy’s East plans a storewide, 25- to 50-percent-off sale, Thursday through Sunday, with steeper markdowns on clearance goods.

"We want to give our customers the same prices they would have gotten last Sunday and Monday," said Martine Reardon, executive vice president of marketing, Macy’s East. "Monday was a huge day to miss. Herald Square and our Florida stores were open, but 95 percent of our business wasn’t. It will be very, very difficult to make that back. People are not going to shop much today or tomorrow," with transportation still difficult.
Sunday was also slow at Macy’s and other stores because consumers were shopping for groceries and other essentials, anticipating being stuck at home. On Tuesday, some Macy’s in New England opened late, but every unit was expected to be operating.

Describing the magnitude of the situation, Reardon characterized President’s Day as the first or second biggest volume Monday of spring, with the possible exception of Memorial Day, and among the top five days of spring, bigger than Valentine’s Day or Easter, but not as big as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Memorial Day.

Macy’s arch rival May Department Stores Co. closed 100 of its 443 U.S. stores on Monday, but reopened them all on Tuesday, according to Sharon Bateman, vice president of corporate communications. Hecht’s, Lord & Taylor, Strawbridges and Filene’s from North Carolina to New England were closed, and each division would determine whether or not to replay President’s Day sales. "As you can imagine, as of this morning, people are still digging out so traffic in the stores has been slow, but the stores are open," Bateman said.

Tracking the storm path, Filene’s closed all its stores in Connecticut on Monday and others late in the day in Providence, R.I., and New York. The retailer, which heavily promoted a President’s Day event, will be "looking at ways to strengthen the rest of the month," said Richard Phelen, broadcast manager for Filene’s. Phelen said he expected Tuesday’s traffic to be light, with people off work and being advised to stay off the roads.

The biggest hit, he said, is the missed opportunity to get customers interested in spring merchandise. Many retailers use February sales events to test spring goods and plan to build inventories on emerging hot tickets. "The frustration is getting customers to come in and focus on spring shopping," Phelen said. "Our merchandise is shifting into spring and we usually cater President’s Day to people who are buying spring [goods] for trips."

J.C. Penney Co. said the majority of its 270 stores in the Northeast region were closed Monday, but all were back open by Tuesday. As of then, there were no plans to alter the promotional calendar since a one-day sale was already scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 22. "Our marketing calendar is extremely competitive," a Penney’s spokeswoman said. "Prices for this next Saturday will be comparable to what they would have seen over President’s Day weekend. Even with the storm, we’re still trending on plan for February. We had a significant increase in Web traffic, especially Monday, which helped us a lot." It’s also possible that Penney’s will tweak its upcoming sale Saturday to try to help make up for lost sales Monday and Sunday, but there was no definite word on that.
Bloomingdale’s said it won’t alter its promotional calendar. "We’re not going to add a one-day sale or a ‘family and friends’ event," stated Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s, which kept the four stores in the Washington and Philadelphia areas closed Sunday, and a total of 10 stores closed Monday, while all stores were back in business Tuesday. Gould called President’s Day, "a very, very big day and [typically] a colossal day for furniture in the Northeast….Obviously, it was a washout." Bloomingdale’s flagship stayed open through the entire mess. Although it missed plan, business was better than expected under the circumstances.

The Saks Fifth Avenue flagship opened later than usual Monday. "Traffic was not as completely nonexistent as one might think when looking at blizzard conditions," said a spokesman. "A lot of people who came to the store were stuck in midtown."

Getting around Manhattan was still tough on Tuesday, with some buildings roped off due to falling ice, particularly on the Fifth Avenue block housing Ferragamo and Cartier.

Three Saks stores — two in Chevy Chase, Md., and one in Tyson’s Galleria, McLean, Va. — were closed Sunday and Monday, but reopened Tuesday. Saks also closed a suburban Philadelphia store and another in Pittsburgh, Pa., but reopened both Tuesday. The spokesman said Saks had no plans to add promotions to make up for lost business.

By midday Tuesday, most Washington, D.C.-area retailers reopened after two days of being shuttered. Most major arteries were cleared and road crews were starting to attack neighborhood streets covered with one or two feet of snow. Schools in the city and in Virginia and Maryland were closed, as was the region’s largest employer, the federal government.

"With the schools out and government closed, we’re hoping we’ll see some crowds," said Jaimie Friedman, senior marketing director at McClean, Va.-based Tysons Galleria, where Macy’s, Saks and Neiman Marcus are anchors. They all delayed opening until noon because of the huge task of plowing parking lots. Across the street, five-anchor Tysons Corner Center opened on time at 10.
Georgetown merchants were hampered by street plows shoving walls of snow onto sidewalks. The Georgetown Gap on Wisconsin Avenue at 12:30 p.m. still hadn’t opened and a clerk wasn’t sure if the store would that day. However, Cory Scott, director of marketing at The Shops at Georgetown Park said, "Traffic is picking up. A lot of people are trapped at home in the neighborhood and are looking for something to do."

In downtown Washington, most retailers reopened Tuesday, including the Hecht’s flagship at Metro Center where President’s Day 50-to-70 percent off sales signs still beckoned. Saks Jandel, an upscale two-unit chain with stores in Chevy Chase and at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington, was hit hard. The stores sent out 17,000 postcards for a President’s Day sale that would have run Saturday through Monday, but they stayed closed Sunday and Monday. The sale has been extended through Saturday. "We usually do some big numbers but on Saturday we did one-fourth of the normal three-day sale total," said general manager Mark Tomlin. "It gave us a big kick back for the month of February."

In Boston, the storm dumped more than 23 inches at Logan Airport by Tuesday morning as Governor Mitt Romney urged residents to keep off the roads to avoid accidents and make way for plows. A spokeswoman for Simon Property Group, which owns roughly 16 malls in the Boston metropolitan area including the Chestnut Hill Mall and the Copley Place Mall, said most of properties closed by two o’clock Monday due to deteriorating weather. "I think it’s fair to say a substantial amount of the sales that could have occurred yesterday will happen another day," she said. "Particularly in New England, where there is school vacation, people will be getting cabin fever."

The Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, N.H. closed at 5 p.m. Monday evening instead of its customary 9:30. Anchors Sears and Target, which have separate entrances, stayed open to supply snow blowers, shovels, batteries and other storm-related items, according to a spokeswoman.

Issie Shait, who manages the Cambridgeside Galleria in Cambridge, Mass. and the Westgate Mall in Brocton, Mass., said the snowstorm doesn’t spell disaster for retailers. Traffic was up about 2 percent at Cambridgeside over last year on Saturday and Sunday, Shait said, but plummeted Monday when conditions turned ugly. He closed the mall at 3 p.m. but it opened on time Tuesday because most of the urban mall’s parking is underground. Some suburban malls, however, weren’t as lucky. Shait’s Westgate Mall didn’t open until noon Tuesday because of plowing and clearing.