Who Said, "Let It Snow?" Not Retailers, Travelers

A huge weekend snow storm played havoc with travelers and shoppers. Stores closed early while airports and train stations experienced delays or cancellations. That left travelers scrambling to find a way out of town, and retailers wondering how to make up for lost business on what would normally be the busiest shopping weekend before Christmas.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The wicked weather that walloped the East has moved on, leaving quite a mess in its wake. Some places were hit with two feet of snow. The near-whiteout conditions dashed the hopes of retailers and stranded travelers, whether they were on planes, trains, or automobiles. NPR's Allison Keyes found frustrated travelers at Reagan National Airport yesterday, where workers were still trying to clear the runways.

ALLISON KEYES: If you were lucky enough to get a cab to the airport, it was clear the moment it arrived, you were going to be there for a while.

Ms. ELSIE YONKLE(ph): I just want to go home. I do not like snow. I don't like cold weather. I just want to go home.

KEYES: Elsie Yonkle looked forlorn in her sparkling leopard print scarf, leaning on a sea of luggage. She was on the phone with her airline hoping to rebook a canceled flight, trying to avoid the maelstrom inside the terminal.

Mr. YONKLE: I'd been outside, and he said he can't do anything, that I'd have to talk to an agent. And the line inside is all the way across the room.

Ms. TONYA CONNORS(ph): Oh, I'm having a blast. We're just trying to talk and figure out where the lines are going, what line we're supposed to be in, why we can't get on a flight when we had reservations.

KEYES: Tonya Connors was in the middle of a line that wound away into the distance in a room that looked to be a quarter mile long. She came in for a funeral, and she needed to get back to Southern California.

Ms. CONNORS: I've heard that I might not get out till Tuesday.

KEYES: As packed as it was inside, there were long lines outside, too, in front of the few curb side check-ins running. Aaron Forbes(ph) was shivering in one of them.

Mr. AARON FORBES (Traveler): It's better to be out here in the cold, 'cause the inside is not moving and no one knows what line they're in. So...

KEYES: Reagan National spokesman Courtney Mickalonis said the problem is the logistics of moving all that snow.

Ms. COURTNEY MICKALONIS (Reagan National Airport Spokesman): This was a record storm for us, and the geography at National Airport is tight. We have a river on one side and a highway on the other and just not a lot of space for the snow to go.

KEYES: Reagan National closed completely Saturday, though airports in New York, New Jersey and Boston limped along through a string of delays and cancellations. Some malls shut down in the Washington, D.C. area as well, including the Fashion Center at Pentagon City. The weather and a partially shut down public transportation system hit travelers and shoppers with a double whammy.

The Saturday before Christmas is usually one of the biggest shopping days of the year - $15 billion worth - and some stores in the storm's path were forced to closed early or lock their doors. Scott Bernhardt at retail analyst Planalytics says the storm will have some affect.

Mr. SCOTT BERNHARDT (Planalytics): 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 list. 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.

KEYES: But there was some good news for retailers. Industry analysts said traffic to retail Web sites was high this weekend.

Unidentified Woman: The local time is 12:30 P.M.

KEYES: Back at Reagan National, there were few signs of Christmas cheer among those enduring hours of waiting. But every now and then, there'd be a glimpse of someone like traveler Sarah Gregory(ph) standing outside, smiling.

Ms. SARAH GREGORY: I'm here, and I'm like two hours early. It looks pretty crappy in there, but I have my ticket printed out, so I don't think I have to stand in that line particularly. So that's good.

KEYES: Better yet, she said, she's going home for Christmas, and she couldn't be happier.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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