The snow effect: empty malls, full driveways

The season's first blizzard, dumping near-record totals in Northeast, hurts retailers but aids skiers and sledders.

Twas three weeks before Christmas and all through the mall, not a person was stirring at Irfan Usman's stall. With almost an inch of snow falling each hour, Mr. Usman's cosmetics kiosk in suburban Boston didn't ring up many sales this weekend.

His quiet register illustrated the way one of the worst December storms in history was disrupting life in the Northeast in subtle and significant ways.

From Maryland to Maine, high school football games were postponed, air travel was delayed, early Christmas shopping was interrupted, and millions of residents reintroduced themselves to the concept of shoveling far earlier than they were expecting.

It could have been far worse, of course. By arriving at week's end, the blizzard didn't disrupt commuters as much as it could have, and snow-plow crews found it easier to clear city streets because of the absence of rush-hour traffic. The snowfall was also spread out over three days, rather than coming in one 24-hour dump, giving crews more time to spritz roads with salt and sand.

Nonetheless, the nor'easter was far from benign. Whipped by 30 to 40 mile-per-hour winds, it caused coastal flooding, knocked out power lines, and forced many people to spend part of the weekend trying to find their mailboxes.

Arriving in early December - a time when many people are still dealing with leftover turkey - the storm also came as something of an unexpected tap on the shoulder. Historically, December is not a big snow month in the East.

Indeed, the prediction of up to 20 inches in Boston, if it holds up, would constitute a record. The previous high was 18.2 inches in a pre-Christmas blizzard in 1975. Elsewhere the totals were equally impressive: Some 10 inches in Baltimore, more than a foot in New York, at least two feet in Vermont and Maine. "This is major," says Scott Reynolds, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Slippery roads and cots at airports

As with most major storms, there was an element of tragedy. At least eight people died in blizzard-related traffic accidents. At one point over the weekend, 8,000 people along the North and South shores of Boston were without power.

Mostly, though, the early white-out was just a nuisance. Many schools postponed college-entrance SAT tests. In Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, football championships were rescheduled. Airports in the region turned into spontaneous slumber parties: Cots were brought in to accommodate passengers whose flights where delayed by as much as 15 hours.

The nor'easter was so severe that Santa himself couldn't make it - at least in Frederick, Md., which canceled its annual holiday parade. But it was Santa's helpers - the merchants - who lost out most. After a lackluster start to the holiday sales season, retailers were disappointed for a second week in a row.

On Saturday, for instance, one of the the only sounds at the Watertown Arsenal Mall was a Salvation Army bell-ringer. "The mall is dead," said Usman, as he sat behind a counter full of fragrances. "This weekend has been horrible."

At the Magic Pet Shop in Wethersfield, Conn., business was down 75 percent. Some stores gave up entirely: More than 20 specialty stores in the Bridgewater Commons mall in New Jersey didn't open Saturday.

Overall, though, retail analyst Richard Hastings predicts the storm will have only a "limited impact." "By the time we get into the middle of the week, the worst effects will be over, and shoppers will get right back into getting things done," says Mr. Hastings of Bernard Sands, a New York financial-services firm.

One reason for the modest impact is the pattern of holiday shopping. The busiest buying period is the last week before Christmas, which accounted for some 40 percent of sales a year ago. Nor were all shoppers dissuaded from venturing out. Home Depots throughout the Northeast reported a run on shovels and sidewalk salt. Sales of wreaths and Christmas trees were brisk.

"Today is the perfect day to get a tree," says John Cacace, after he and his wife, Katie, picked out a nine-foot spruce at a lot here. "The snow, the winter, it's all here and it puts you in the mood."

Ice skating in New York

In New York, the snow didn't dampen holiday spirits either. Broadway shows went on as scheduled. At Rockefeller Center, where the giant Christmas tree was lit earlier this week, skaters filled the ice rink. "People are coming into this area to see the tree or see the shows," says Felix Olivo, manager of the Sharper Image store near the rink.

Few benefited from the storm, though, more than tow-truck and plow operators. Six hours into an 18-hour shift, John Kopellas of Needham, Mass., barely has time for a coffee break between clearing lots and driveways. "With this much snow, you can't move it all at once," he says. "You've got to be on top of it."

One other big winner: ski resorts. The lift lines were long by 8 a.m. at many slopes in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. "The snow is fantastic," says Peter Dee of Bromley Mountain resort in Vermont. "We're projecting between 15 and 21 inches. So we're delighted."

Wire service material was used in this report.

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