Retailers extend sales, try to recoup

Retailers are extending Presidents Day sales, restocking shelves with food and other staples and selling off inventory to liquidators after the weekend snowstorm forced hundreds of stores and malls in Baltimore and elsewhere in the northeastern United States to shut down.

Closures on Sunday and Monday, as the state was hit with its worst winter storm in 81 years, likely cost retailers tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and advertising spent to promote the holiday weekend, the final chance to clear holiday inventory before rolling out spring merchandise, retail experts said yesterday.

"Is it possible to make it up - it's hard to say what is a sale you've lost and what's new," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "Retailers rely heavily on the weather to determine what kind of a year [they'll have]. This isn't as critical as the holiday season, but ... it would have been nice to have strong sales this weekend."

Yesterday, as most of stores and malls reopened, retailers and experts said they would be extending or adding sales as a way to recoup some of the lost business and clear shelves of winter merchandise.

"Certainly, we hope that some of it can be made up," said Diane Daly, a spokeswoman for Hecht's, which extended its President Day coupons for one day - through yesterday - and will start a previously planned sales event for next weekend a day early. "When you close up almost an entire company for two key business days, it's difficult. We are hopeful we'll bring in more business."

May Department Stores Co., the parent of Hecht's, closed 100 East Coast stores Sunday and Monday, about 60 of them Hecht's stores as well as Lord & Taylor, Filene's and Strawbridge's.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. closed the majority of its 270 Northeast region stores Monday. Sears, Roebuck and Co. closed stores in areas hit by the storm. Sears, like Hecht's said it extended its president Day sale through yesterday.

"Obviously, retailers spent millions of dollars in advertising for the Presidents Day sales," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm in New York who represents national retail chains. "My clients are going to extend those sales into the coming weekend."

But because many retailers kept a tight control on inventory going into the holiday season, "It's not really a crisis," Davidowitz said. "I don't think it's some catastrophe that will skew all the retail numbers. Clearly it's painful - they spend millions for Presidents Day and the stores were closed - but it will not affect the overall retail number to any gigantic degree."

J.C. Penney, for one, said yesterday its sales for February remain on track despite the store closures. The department store chain had already planned a sale for this Saturday, "so basically we're just going to follow through as normal. We expect to see a higher volume of shoppers," as consumers with cabin fever head back to the malls, said Christi Byrd Smith, a Penney spokeswoman.

At Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which closed stores in nine states yesterday, including most of Maryland, employees will be focused on restocking shelves with food, paper products and household goods.

"When you're closed for a day and you re-open there's a pent-up shopping demand from people who were not able to get out," said Tom Williams, a Wal-Mart spokesman. "What we're focusing on is that the stores are in stock. There are going to be spikes in shopping in the next few days."

After being closed Monday, the Mall in Columbia opened yesterday with all the department stores and 80 percent of the specialty stores also opening their doors.

By yesterday afternoon, mall traffic had started to pick up.

"We had more customers than we had anticipated," said Karen Geary, a Rouse vice president and general manager of the mall. "We had a lot of families out in groups and some office folks."

But not all retailers were counting on pent up demand in the coming days to help move winter merchandise off the shelves. And others are not willing to wait another year to try to sell dated goods., a business service that sells excess inventory for retailers through online auctions, has seen a spike in its business since the storm hit, said Bill Angrick, chief executive officer of the Washington D.C.-based Web site.

Sales volume for Friday, when the winter storm was being forecast, through yesterday rose four times compared with the same weekend last year, Angrick said. Rather than selling one or two products through the online auctions, retailers are selling as many as 10 categories of products, he said.

"The other impact of a blizzard is that with two tough holiday seasons in a row, there is a greater urgency by retailers to be more proactive in clearing the store shelves and distribution centers with stale merchandise," Angrick said. "Last year, they were waiting up to 12 months to move it, this year they're reacting very rapidly."