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Weather slows shopping traffic

January 29, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

This week's bone-chilling temperatures and hazardous roads put the freeze on retail sales, slowing shopping traffic in the Tri-State area by more than half at area malls.

"Yesterday at noon, we only had 1,200 people in the mall. On a typical day, we usually have 4,000 people by noon," Valley Mall Marketing Director Julie Rohm said.

However, the ice and snow helped double business for some video rental stores.

"We get slammed the day or two before the bad weather hits," said Melissa Wilkinson, assistant manager of the Blockbuster on Dual Highway in Hagerstown.

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Local and state transportation officials asked motorists to stay off the roads Monday and Tuesday as an icy mixture of sleet and snow caused treacherous driving conditions. Temperatures in the mid-20s are expected to last through Saturday, Accuweather.com meteorologist Scott Homan said.

Despite several area closings, mall officials rarely close their doors "unless the state declares a state of emergency," Rohm said.

In Hagerstown, Valley Mall officials gave smaller stores the option of closing at 5 p.m. JC Penney was the only large department store to close early along with other stores in the mall, she said.

At most area malls, the decision to close or not is based on up-to-the-minute changes in weather and road conditions.

"We are mainly concerned with the safety of our shoppers, instead of herding them in the door," Martinsburg Mall General Manager Linda Wagner said. "We want mall employees to get home safe."

Malls in Chambersburg, Pa., and Martinsburg, W.Va., remained open Monday and Tuesday but several stores closed early. Chambersburg Mall Marketing Director Mendy Obitts said as long as the bad weather holds off, cabin fever will bring shoppers out this weekend in large numbers.

"In talking with merchants, they felt an impact," she said. "But you take a little less of a hit (financial) during the week compared to the weekend."

Given that January is typically a slower shopping month following the Christmas season, any financial loss could be recovered this weekend, mall officials said.

While several mall stores closed due to the inclement weather, the video rental business was booming.

"This is our best time of the year," Wilkinson said. "Our business has doubled, but we lose money on late fees that we take off due to the weather."

She said her staff is stretched to the limit due to customer demand and because some workers can't make it in due to the weather.

Some residents wanting to enjoy a hot pizza with a movie were forced to brave the weather because in some cases home deliveries were impossible, Hagerstown Pizza Hut area manager John McIntyre said.

"It's been a tough winter," he said. "Drivers can't risk their safety to deliver pizzas, and it's hard for customers to come get it."

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