By and and and and  on December 22, 2009

Retailers have no illusions about miracles in the final stretch of a mostly muted holiday season.

Markdowns likely will accelerate, more ads will be placed, but generally strategies are set, and there’s little to do to make up for the estimated $2 billion in losses from the weekend snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Despite the pressures, retailers don’t seem to be panicking, citing greatly reduced inventories, rising online sales and an extra day of shopping compared with last year’s disastrous season. Projections are holding steady for flat to slightly positive or negative comparable-store sales for holiday. A clearer read will emerge Jan. 7, when December comps are reported.

“Most of the sectors are showing improvements in their growth rates since Black Friday,” said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis at SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors. “In terms of the latest performance figures, the electronics, men’s apparel, footwear and furniture and furnishings sectors are all showing positive or flat year-over-year growth rates since the Black Friday weekend. E-commerce continues to be one of the stars of the season with a season-to-date growth rate of 13 percent.

“There is improvement in the year-over-year comparisons virtually across the board as we move through December,” McNamara said. “This improvement is in spite of a significant winter storm event that impacted virtually all the northern regions of the country in the first half of the month. There is still a good deal of shopping to occur between now and Christmas.”

In fact, investors pushed up retail stocks 1.7 percent Monday, the second-strongest showing in December. The S&P Retail Index advanced 6.88 points to 413.96. (See related story, page 14.)

The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., based in York, Pa., acknowledged there’s not much that can be done in the days ahead to make up lost ground.



“We are already opened optimum hours. We have terrific promotions already lined up,” said Mary Kerr, vice president of public and investor relations. While Bon-Ton has higher online sales, “we believe our customer will still want to shop in our stores.”

Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive officer of Saks Fifth Avenue, said stores in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Long Island, N.Y., and New Jersey were “clearly affected” by the storm — a total of about half a dozen full-price units and a couple of outlets.

The season “is not over yet,” said Ed Bucciarelli, president and ceo of Henri Bendel, which he said is stocked with more gift items this season, including a collection of accessories in partnership with Crystallized-Swarovski Elements. “We’ve got a very critical couple of [days] to go. We’re doing it without really promoting. There is very little promotional activity right now, and that’s how we believe our brand should be behaving.”

Although the storm hurt, retail executives said many customers, with advance warning from forecasters, shopped Friday and early Saturday.

“People were not moving on Saturday, and Sunday started off slow,” said a spokesman from the Reading, Pa.-based Boscov’s department store chain. “Eighty percent of the company had some kind of impact. The extra day can help make it up, but there’s not enough time to really change strategies, though you can do some fine-tuning. We did move some ROP around to put more focus on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. There is a silver lining to the weather. We are selling boots, cold-weather items, shovels and heaters.”

At least $2 billion of the $15 billion in sales typically generated on Super Saturday were lost, said Scott A. Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics, a weather service for retailers and Spending Pulse.

“That is a significant portion of Super Saturday sales that will not be recovered,” Bernhardt said. “Recovery will be seen most at retailers with must-have items [e.g., Toys ‘R’ Us, Best Buy] and destinations [e.g., Wal-Mart], but the industry as a whole will not be able to completely make up for the lost shopping hours in many heavily populated centers. Pre- and post-storm, consumers were shopping to lists and focused on getting in and out of stores as quickly as possible.”

The Saturday before Christmas is considered the biggest or second-biggest day of the year for most retailers.

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