Snowy predictions in the Northeast may have storybook holiday charm, but they're not raising the spirits of retailers counting on shoppers to give them a brisk finish to the season.
A wet storm that arrived in the Southeast late Thursday could bring snow to much of the eastern seaboard beginning Saturday. Washington, D.C., could get 10 to 16 inches of snow, and the New York region 5 to 10 inches, the National Weather Service warned.
The track of the storm is still uncertain, however, so much less snow is also a possibility.
For retailers already struggling to draw restrained holiday shoppers, stormy weather on the last Saturday before Christmas, sometimes the busiest shopping day of the year, could mean the loss of sales that aren't replaced, experts said.
"When you lose a day of sales between now and Dec. 25, you don't make it up," said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe. "If you're closed for business on Saturday, you're not going to do twice the business on Sunday."
Even if major storms don't materialize, forecasts could keep shoppers home.
"When the radio says, 'Stay tuned, don't leave your house, this is the storm of '09,'" that's bad for business, he said.
Chain stores with a heavy concentration in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including Bon-Ton stores, DSW Shoe Warehouse and Kohl's Inc., will be affected the most, he said. Representatives of those retailers did not immediately return calls for comment.
Smaller, independent stores are often the most vulnerable to bad weather.
"It's the busiest day of the year. If it happens, it will cost me thousands of dollars," said Geoff Stern, owner of toy store The Toy Professor in Summit, N.J.
Todd Dickinson, owner of Aaron's Books in Lititz, Pa., said he has had a good December. But "if it's bad weather, it's tough to think about the day that could have been."
Michael Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers, said a storm would put a dent in weekend sales regionally but might not affect the season as a whole.
"Will it be so detrimental to the season? Probably not, to the extent that we still have a fair amount of days ahead of Christmas," he said.
He stuck with his forecast that sales will rise about 1 percent for November and December from 2008 levels.