Sunday dumped a snowfall no one was expecting. Tuesday brought a batch everyone knew was coming. But both bursts had the same effect: draining dollars out of the one sector for which every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a big deal - retailing.

The snowstorms emptied shopping centers and malls on two days of an already shortened 26-day shopping season, thanks to this year's unusually late Thanksgiving.

The one-two punch meant stores in one of the nation's most populated metro areas cut staff hours, extended sales in some cases, or redeployed idle workers to stock shelves during the lull, while snowplows cleared lots so shoppers might eventually rush back to play catchup.

The early storms invoked angst in the hearts and minds of merchants, particularly given tepid holiday spending forecasts.

And yet, there was hope the lost ground could be made up.

"I'll tell you exactly what we're doing about the snow," said Jim Boscov, vice chairman of Boscov's department stores, invoking a line that his uncle, Albert, has used: "It's called prayer."

The parking lot midday Tuesday at Boscov's at Plymouth Meeting Mall was nearly empty, as were lots at other shopping centers in the region, where up to 5 inches of snow began to fall in the morning.

Most roads were eminently passable, thanks to aggressive plowing Tuesday, but few cars were on the streets.

Chemical Road, near the normally busy Metroplex shopping center in Conshohocken, was as barren at lunchtime as it had been some two decades ago, when it was little more than a pass-through amid undeveloped brownfields.

Giant retailers Barnes & Noble, Old Navy, and Best Buy, had only a few cars parked in unplowed spaces.

"It's a big challenge," said Best Buy store manager Vince Lawrence, "but you've got to play the cards you're dealt."

A private sale that was to have given elite customers after-hours store access for exclusive discounts Sunday evening, for example, was instead extended online through an e-mail blast, Lawrence said.

When the second storm hit Tuesday, a priority was to make sure staffing was low enough to match reduced customer traffic, Lawrence said.

One benefit of empty stores was that workers could take a breather to spruce up displays, as was the case at the Kohl's at Andorra Shopping Center.

Associates sat on floors to restock shelves, rolled dollies of merchandise down empty aisles, and dolled up the digs for a hoped-for crush of customers once the weather cleared. (Kohl's will be open this year for 100 continous hours up to 6 p.m. Christmas Eve.)

Although plows arrived at 5 a.m. and cleared the lot, cars were scarce.

"I think it's kind of silly to be afraid of weather like this," said Kansas native Barbara Henkels, of Plymouth Meeting, one of the few Christmas shoppers at Kohl's.

Kohl's assistant store manager, Claire Gannon, with 17 years at the Andorra store, has been in the business too long to be pessimistic after snow. Customers would still wake up the next day and realize Christmas was two weeks away, she said.

"This snow won't keep them away," Gannon said.

Similar hopes were echoed by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns or partially owns eight regional malls and two shopping centers, including Metroplex and Plymouth Meeting Mall.

"We think people will still go out and get what they need to get," PREIT spokeswoman Heather Crowell said.

Indeed, a pair of storms much closer to Christmas would be more damaging. Now, at least, shoppers still have time to make up the lost days.

"Our experience has been that snow certainly hurts," Boscov said, "but as long as you're not right on top of Christmas, you'll make up most of it."