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After unwanted snow day, retailers hope for a miracle

Businesses buried in despair by the weekend snowstorm awoke yesterday to scenes like the one that played out at 9 a.m. outside Danielle Maguire's South Jersey boutique.

Businesses buried in despair by the weekend snowstorm awoke yesterday to scenes like the one that played out at 9 a.m. outside Danielle Maguire's South Jersey boutique.

"I opened up," said Maguire, owner of Pipsqueak in Haddonfield, "and we had three people waiting at the door. Normally, we don't have people at the door waiting."

Retailers were embracing such causes for manic joy as storm-stranded shoppers emerged from hibernation to play catch-up on Christmas lists. With just a few days left before Christmas, merchants were eager to make up for the wipeout of weekend shopping that was supposed to be the most lucrative of the year.

Multiple zip codes of customers had gone into snow comas on Saturday and Sunday - the retail equivalent of losing your star quarterback the night before the Super Bowl.

To rally, retailers were placing their bets on shoppers who didn't order their way out of the gift-list jam with online purchases over the weekend. Plenty ventured out on slushy highways and icy side roads to hit stores yesterday.

"Monday certainly looks nice and strong," said local retail analyst Holly Guthrie, after leaving King of Prussia Mall. The parking lot was just a quarter full when she got there at about 10 a.m., but was half full as she left at lunchtime, she said.

"The lines really started to form around 11 a.m., with a lot of foot traffic in the mall," said Guthrie, of Boenning & Scattergood, Inc. "It was busy, from the department stores on down to the specialty stores."

But shoppers had their work cut out for them; a recent survey by the National Retail Federation found the majority of procrastinators planned to finish their holiday shopping on Saturday - the day the snowstorm dumped one to two feet across the Northeast, forcing some malls to close or cut short their hours.

Guthrie predicted retailers would recover those lost shoppers in the next few days, while Maguire was more cautious about her own store's chances for recovery in a South Jersey suburban Main-Street setting.

"It'll be hard to recover from," said Maguire, who had to sneak out for a few hours yesterday to finish her own holiday shopping. (She had planned to do it Saturday night but was foiled by the storm.) "We're hoping that in the next three days we'll see an increase as to where we were last year."

Did the storm cause a boost to online sales over the weekend? Maguire said she saw alluring sales with free shipping on Web sites that seemed eager to capitalize on the captivity of homebound shoppers.

But that trend, if indeed a trend, was not immediately clear to folks at United Parcel Service, a ubiquitous courier of gifts.

UPS planned to deliver 22 million packages yesterday, its peak day, said spokeswoman Keisha Simmons. While the company had no clear data to show whether the orders had emanated from online, it was interesting that both that tally and the anticipated six million air packages scheduled for delivery tomorrow are slightly higher than the numbers UPS handled on similar dates in 2007.

Simmons said 2007 was the most recent year UPS kept count. It did not keep figures from 2008, when the stock market crash and recession caused one of the most volatile and meager holiday shopping seasons on record.

But there were plenty of pedestrians shopping in the flesh at Cherry Hill Mall. The midday view from the second level showed crowds as thick as would have been expected over the weekend, said Joseph Coradino, an executive who oversees leasing for mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust.

"You could see all the way down the mall to Macy's, and it was shoulder to shoulder," said Coradino, who said Springfield Mall in Delaware County also was reportedly jammed with shoppers just before lunchtime.

"The other good news about Cherry Hill," he said, "is we have one of the dozen Macy stores in the United States that is going to be open 24 hours a day through Christmas Eve. So they'll certainly make up any shortfall that they might have experienced."

There was similar optimism in downtown Philadelphia, as a sun-drenched afternoon drew workday shoppers to the Shops at Liberty Place.

The mall, whose stores are on two floors of the grand atrium of one of the city skyline's most conspicuous skyscrapers, was much busier around 3 p.m. than over the snow-coated weekend, when sales clerks had outnumbered shoppers at times, said general manager Karen Pollard.

"I went to talk to some of the people in the stores in the middle of the afternoon," Pollard said, "and people were busy. Too busy to talk - which was good."