Many stores in New York were closed on Saturday as Hurricane Irene neared, with some posting comical signs like "Blame the weatherman. Not us" and "Evidently `The Show Must Go On!' means nothing to Irene." But New York's shopping districts still were bustling as people piled into any store that was open.
Merci Market in Chelsea had long lines as people bought deli sandwiches and fancier fare. People filed into The Container Store in Midtown to grab plastic boxes so they can use their indoor time constructively to organize. And parents crowded into Toys `R' Us in Times Square to snag toys and games so their children won't get bored.
"It's business as usual," a store official at Harry Winston, the exclusive jewelry retailer, said shortly after the store opened.
The hurricane, which could hit New York on Sunday morning, comes in the thick of the critical back-to-school shopping season, a time between mid-July and September that is typically the second biggest shopping period of the year. For some big retailers, Manhattan is particularly important because it can account for as much as 10 percent of their annual revenue. A washout could have a huge impact on retailers' top and bottom lines: Nationally, weather research firm Planalytics estimates that Irene will stop 80 million shoppers from hitting the malls this weekend.
"This is a worst-case scenario," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group. "This was supposed to be a prime weekend for apparel retailers."
On Saturday, some big chains like Macy's and J.C. Penney conceded defeat and kept their doors closed. Meanwhile, some mom-and-pop shops and specialty retailers tried to salvage sales during the weekend. Regardless of what they did on Saturday, though, most stores planned to stay closed on Sunday.
Angel Estrada, who works at the Harlem wine shop Lot No. 125, said on Saturday that he planned to keep the store open until midnight as usual. The store did more than double its usual business on Friday, and Estrada echoed other small-business workers when he said he didn't want to lose out on the sales on Saturday night. By 10 a.m., about a half dozen customers had filtered through the shop, including Latonya Robertson, who picked up four bottles of wine for $20 because the price was right.
"This is nothing for me," said Estrada, who is from the hurricane-prone Dominican Republic. "And yesterday was a really nice day for the store."
On Fifth Avenue and other midtown shopping areas, major department stores like Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and J.C. Penney had closed their doors. Some boarded up their windows, while others like furniture store Ethan Allen used masking tape to keep them from shattering. Even so, the district still hummed with tourists and locals.
At the midtown location of The Container Store, which planned to close at 2 p.m. on Saturday, shoppers were buying picture albums and shoe organizers. One woman was consulting with a salesperson about organizing her closet. Another shopper left with $54 worth of photo albums. Diana Goldberg left with a laundry basket.
"It was top of my list," Goldberg said.
Times Square was bustling with tourists as if it were a usual Saturday, though many of the stores were closed. The ones that were open, including the Gap and Toys "R" Us, were packed. On one block of Times Square, the only store open was called Cute Souvenirs (hash)2 and it was filled with tourists snapping up postcards and t-shirts _ but not the umbrellas at the front.
Friends Esther Henze, Katherine Cosma and Linda Gagne wandered down the block and lamented how their Fifth Avenue shopping day had been deterred. They figured they could pamper their skin if they couldn't go shopping, so they went to Duane Reade to buy face masks for the storm. Those were sold out. They said they had already bought wine, but laughed when another customer told them to stock up on peanut butter as well.
"We still need to go grocery shopping," Henze said. "But I don't think you're going starve in Manhattan."
At Fantastic Kids Toys in the Upper East Side, Steve Reis, the store's owner, said by late morning that he'd had a steady stream of customers since opening at the usual 7:30 a.m. He planned to stay open until the weather made it impossible.
Joju Thomas, 36, left the store with $100 worth of toys, including stickers and games, for his 16-month-old daughter Grace. "She's an outdoor baby," he said. "I wanted to keep her occupied."