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Area retailers get unwanted snow day

The snowstorm of the decade spelled potential disaster for the region's retailers on what is typically one of the most profitable weekends of the year.

Caroline Talarico of Media runs ahead of a plow cleaning the sidewalk on State Street. She was out doing holiday errands yesterday. "I just love this," she said.
Caroline Talarico of Media runs ahead of a plow cleaning the sidewalk on State Street. She was out doing holiday errands yesterday. "I just love this," she said.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The snowstorm of the decade spelled potential disaster for the region's retailers on what is typically one of the most profitable weekends of the year.

As snow crippled the area, retail and restaurant managers from Center City and King of Prussia to Voorhees and Atlantic City worked feverishly with snowplow teams throughout the day to keep up with the massive snowfall and ensure their sidewalks and parking lots were cleared.

But many customers stayed home, forcing several malls, which had extended hours for the holiday season, to close early, including Cherry Hill Mall, or not open at all, like The Walk, an outdoor outlet mall in Atlantic City.

"Historically, the Saturday before Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the year," said Robert Hart, general manager of the King of Prussia mall. The cavernous mall, with more than 400 shops, draws about 25 percent of its customers from two hours or more away, Hart said, and clearly, they couldn't get there yesterday.

"Without a doubt, we had thinner crowds - nothing compared to a typical Saturday before Christmas in previous years."

Those who came out and braved the weather were "serious buyers that had shopping lists to take care of, and they came out with a purpose," Hart said. But their numbers were few and far between.

It was a similar scene in New Jersey.

The foot traffic was "noticeably down," said Michael Fox, general manager of the Voorhees Town Center, formerly the Echelon Mall, which closed at 5 p.m. yesterday instead of its scheduled 11 p.m. for the holidays.

"That's six hours lost for the day," he said. "It's a big hit to the retailers' bottom line."

But Fox said safety concerns grew paramount regarding customers' being able to get home last night.

"With the weather predicted to get worse, it was decided to close the mall early for everyone's safety and to provide us additional time to get the parking lots ready for tomorrow [Sunday] morning," said Fox, who monitored the snow removal for the mall's 8 a.m. opening today.

Others followed suit. Cherry Hill Mall closed at 7 p.m., instead of 11 p.m., while King of Prussia mall shut down at 8 p.m., three hours ahead of schedule. Only anchor stores such as Sears and Macy's stayed open later.

Others, such as The Walk outlet mall, which covers 12 blocks in the heart of Atlantic City, did not open at all yesterday.

"You don't want to lose one minute, let alone one day," said Kim Butler, general manager of the 100-store mall that would have been open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. yesterday if not for the weather.

She estimated the lost business in the millions of dollars, but "we didn't want to put anyone in danger and our employees at risk. It seemed the right thing to do given the forecast."

If shoppers weren't shopping, they weren't dining out, either.

Center City's Devon Seafood Grill, which overlooks Rittenhouse Square and is near the venerable shops dotting Walnut Street, is usually mobbed with shoppers, those coming from office holiday parties, and sports fans as the only restaurant on the square with TV sets, said bar manager John Doyle.

It was virtually empty yesterday - except for a few locals who arrived by foot.

"It's nowhere near where we have been in the last four years on the weekend before Christmas," he said as he fielded canceled dinner reservations most of yesterday. Doyle had 71 confirmed guests last night, down 70 percent to 80 percent from previous years.

"I haven't seen anybody," Doyle said yesterday as snow continued to fall hard over the park. "I am watching a snowball fight across the street. That's the most action I've seen all day."

Not surprisingly, restaurants that depend on mall traffic were also hard hit. Many were closed.

But Vitarelli's Restaurant & Catering at 1250 N. Kings Highway, a few miles from Cherry Hill Mall, made up for the lost business by feeding the snowplow crews and train-traffic controllers for Conrail who worked in nearby Mount Laurel yesterday.

"What general business I'm losing I'm making up for in the storm with the catering business," owner David Vitarelli said last night. "People aren't coming in to eat, but I have the snowplow crews to feed all night and in the morning."

Even Boyds, the upscale men's and women's clothing store at 1818 Chestnut St., played it hour by hour yesterday. But it, too, closed up shop early before its normal 6 p.m. on Saturdays because of the weather.

Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Bucks County, said all was not lost. There were still five days left to shop, and there was the option of shopping online.

"There seems to be a lot of last-minute shoppers this year, assuming they were going to shop," he said. "Losing the last Saturday before Christmas is potentially a major setback for retailers, since this has become the really big shopping day.

"As long as people can get out today, there should be some offset, and there is still most of the upcoming week," he said.

That is what mall managers are banking on, who promise nothing less than a full-court press starting early this morning when they reopen their doors.

"The retailers, at this point, will work hard to make up for lost sales leading up to Christmas," Fox at Voorhees Town Center said. "Instead of having six days before Christmas, we're down to five days of shopping."

Butler said the stores at The Walk in Atlantic City were scheduled to open at 9 a.m. today and will be offering free gift wrapping and free valet from noon to 6 p.m. to lure back customers and "help make up for lost time."

Hart, the general manager at the King of Prussia mall, which reopens at 8 a.m. today, said that once the storm was announced Friday, traffic at the mall picked up considerably that day.

"We also anticipate Sunday through Thursday to be very busy since they lost Saturday," he said. "People still have shopping to do."