Snow Cuts Into 'Super Saturday' Sales

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"Super Saturday" is the nickname retailers have given the Saturday before Christmas. Along with Black Friday, it may be the most important shopping day of the year. But this "Super Saturday" was a super-mess thanks to a massive storm that churned up the Eastern Seaboard — an area that accounts for almost a third of the country's retail sales. As the East Coast starts to dig out today, host Guy Raz talks with "weather economist" Scott Bernhardt about just how crippling the storm was for stores — and whether shoppers have enough time to make up the lost ground.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And I'm outside a big shopping complex here in Washington, D.C. There's a Target and a Marshalls and a Best Buy. And so, this time of year, the place gets pretty packed.

Now, while there are shoppers here today, it's still slow going trying to get here; yesterday was the snowiest December day on record here in our nation's capital. And the storm shut down cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Right now, there's still a good foot and a half of snow piled up on the sidewalk. This hour, we're going to start by taking a look at the storm's impact on holiday shopping.

In recent years, the Saturday before Christmas has actually surpassed Black Friday as the most important day for retailers. In a moment, we'll go inside Target to hear about one of the hottest toys this season. But first, back to the studio, where I called up Scott Bernhardt. He is an economist who studies the impact of the weather on sales. And yesterday - well, retailers took a big hit.

Mr. SCOTT BERNHARDT (Chief Operating Officer, Planalytics; Weather Economist): Basically, people couldn't get to the malls. Areas that are not used to snow hardly at all, such as Washington, D.C., and outlying areas, got absolutely hammered by snow. It's been a significant traffic-limiting event that has kept people away from the malls, away from the outlet centers - frankly, away from shopping.

RAZ: And so, overall, when retailers sort of crunch the numbers at the end of the year, this will presumably have an impact.

Mr. BERNHARDT: That's correct. It's not everything, certainly. Christmas will still come; people will still shop. But what tends to happen is that people will shop to their lists. And, you know, they bring a list into the mall, shop exactly what's on the list and, you know, jump in their cars and go home because they're running out of time. And you lose a lot of that, you know, self-gifting, you know, browsing, true shopping that retailers rely on to up their numbers.

RAZ: Now, how big of a deal is the Saturday before Christmas? I mean, we often hear about, you know, Black Friday after Thanksgiving.

Mr. BERNHARDT: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: But I mean, is that Saturday before Christmas, you know, a make-it-or-break-it moment for retailers?

Mr. BERNHARDT: Yeah. For many retailers, it is the biggest shopping day of the year. You know, it's estimated that on a normal year - and I do hesitate on that because this is not a normal year. But in a normal year, we were expecting close to $15 billion to trade hands on Super Saturday.

When you have, you know, such a significant portion of the population under the weather gun, if you will, that hurts.

RAZ: I do have to ask you. A lot of our listeners, particularly in other parts of the country - in the West and in the Southwest - will say, you know, we had great weather yesterday. What's the big deal if there was snow on the East Coast?

Mr. BERNHARDT: We're talking about a storm that started in Florida with significant rain events, moved right up the coast, and is still threatening the Boston region. Really, that has a significant impact because it impacts so many people.

When you have close to 25 percent of the population under threat, and frankly, their wallets not in the malls, that hurts. And that is a significant national event when so many people can't get to the mall.

RAZ: In other words, the people who live along the storm's path have a lot of purchasing power.

Mr. BERNHARDT: That's exactly right, significant purchasing power that wasn't purchasing yesterday. You know, the Cherry Hill Mall closed.

RAZ: This is in New Jersey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNHARDT: Right. Atlantic City, the Walk, it closed. And again, other malls were able to stay open, but certainly stores within those malls, you know, had to close.

RAZ: Now, Scott, your company, Planalytics, provides analysis to your clients, weather analysis, sort of suggesting what they ought to do to prepare for days like yesterday. What did you advise your clients, who would have been affected by yesterday's storm?

Mr. BERNHARDT: We advised them to get the goods into the stores prior to this event, and we advised them to turn up their advertising. Advertise even more than they had originally planned to get into - onto the radio, into print media, anything they could get - they could do to make sure that the shoppers that were going to appear were going to shop at their stores, rather than their competitors'.

People are going to go to the mall. They're going to be very focused from now until Christmas. You need to stand out.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. OK, any storms coming up this week before Christmastime that, you know, you would sort of tell your clients to just brace themselves for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNHARDT: I'm afraid so. They're - we are not out of the winter weather woods yet. We are tracking a storm that's likely to come across the Plains into, you know, the Chicagoland area around, you know, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, move east maybe by the day after Christmas. It's more likely to be rain in more of the population centers or ice, but it's still going to be a traffic-limiting event.

RAZ: And that day after Christmas is also a pretty important shopping day because all the sales are up.

Mr. BERNHARDT: You're exactly right.

RAZ: That's Scott Bernhardt. He's the chief operating officer of Planalytics. It's a company that studies the economic impact of the weather.

Scott Bernhardt, thanks so much.

Mr. BERNHARDT: Thank you.

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