A massive storm that dumped about a half-meter of snow from Virginia to Maine did more than frustrate motorists. It added to the woes of retailers that were already bracing for weak holiday sales as the United States struggles to emerge from the deepest and longest recession of the post-World War II era.
The storm's timing could hardly have been worse, blanketing the most-populous regions of the United States on the last weekend before Christmas, when millions of Americans are preparing to exchange gifts.
"To have the biggest [shopping] weekend of the year wiped out in almost half the country by wicked winter weather and record blizzards is really going to hurt sales and operating profits, and it is really going to hurt government revenue," says retail analyst Burt Flickinger of the Strategic Resource Group.
Even before the storm, the National Retail Federation was predicting a one percent drop in U.S. holiday sales compared to last year. Although an economic recovery is believed to be underway, U.S. unemployment remains stubbornly high and consumers appear more focused on saving and debt reduction than spending.
Again, retail analyst Burt Flickinger, speaking on Bloomberg Television.
"People are more cash and credit-constrained than at any other time in U.S. history," he noted. "So they are only buying for children and immediate family members. Just for need, not for want."
To combat sales losses, many retailers are extending store hours in the few remaining days before Christmas. While traditional stores clearly lost revenue in recent days, other businesses may actually profit from inclement weather.
Many online retailers saw a jump in orders, as shoppers unable to leave their homes turned to their computers to make purchases. And grocery stores and supermarkets also saw a jump in business ahead of the storm, as people scrambled to buy food and supplies.
"The grocery stores had a surge in business," Flickinger said. "They were up 100 percent [in sales] per day for two days in a row before the storm."
Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.