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Sales slow to a crawl

FRIDAY, DEC. 19, 2008

Few stores open as workers, customers find it impossible to travel

Not even Santa showed up for work Thursday. Most days, the downtown Santa at River Park Square’s Christmas photo station is swarmed by parents and kids.

Santa was probably taking refuge at the North Pole. The few shoppers who traveled downtown after Wednesday and Thursday’s snowfall found no sign of St. Nick and many shuttered stores.

Except for a few businesses – auto parts stores, supermarkets and some outdoor clothing retailers – most shops in the Inland Northwest were closed or handled a fraction of the customers they typically see. The snowstorm added insult to an already difficult winter for merchants, who were hoping the next six days would boost an otherwise ordinary retail period.

“Any time you close your business, merchants can’t make any sales,” said Daryl Rheingans, manager of the Silver Lake Mall in Coeur d’Alene and the Spokane Valley Mall.

He said Silver Lake Mall, NorthTown and Spokane Valley Mall closed at 1 p.m.

Store managers reported numerous workers couldn’t drive or take a bus to work. The three malls were expected to be open today, Rheingans said.

Spokane’s River Park Square reported about half its businesses stayed closed Thursday. Many others closed early. Among those that never opened were the AMC movie theaters. Elizabeth Mills, River Park Square’s communications director, said the theaters might reopen today if enough workers can make it in.

Wanda Hunt, operations manager at Jo-Ann Stores in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center on Spokane’s South Hill, said people were lined up when the store opened – “there’s always a couple die-hards” – but traffic was so light through the morning and into the afternoon that the store closed at 2 p.m., seven hours early. The storm could have a “major impact” on sales during the busy retail time, Hunt said.

The ShopKo store on Regal also closed early, at 6 p.m. rather than midnight, after a day when shopper traffic was light, Melea Hunt, a store employee, said. Shoppers prowling the downtown skywalks included visitors staying at hotels and nearby residents. Robert Blair, who lives in an apartment on West Riverside Avenue, twice failed to get his car out of a rut. He ended up walking downtown and bought a variety of gift cards.

Among stores doing solid business despite the snow was River Park Square’s Helly Hansen, an outdoors and ski gear outfitter. Manager David Ledbetter said numerous customers showed up looking for cold-weather clothing.

One customer from out of town realized he would have to walk to Sacred Heart Medical Center for an appointment.

“He came in and bought gloves, a wool hat – and even wanted goggles,” Ledbetter said. The man also went to the nearby Macy’s for a pair of sturdy boots, he said.

The Spokane REI store on North Monroe Street saw some shoppers and employees arrive on snowshoes or skis, assistant manager Scott Fite said. Cold-weather gear has sold well in the days since the cold snap started, but fewer shoppers were in the store Thursday.

“A couple days like this could impact sales a bit,” Fite said. “Once it breaks, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

A survey of supermarkets found that many saw unusually brisk business throughout the day.

Dana Bell, assistant manager of the Safeway on Hamilton near Gonzaga University, said customers showed up in higher numbers than she expected.

“We were the only store that stayed open in this area. So everybody showed up here,” she said. “We have been very busy throughout the day.”

As always after heavy snow, auto parts stores were slammed by customers in need of tire chains, wiper blades and traction sand.

“We’re sold out on our tire chains,” said Steve Bennett, a salesman at the downtown Motion Auto Supply. “But we still have lots of wiper blades. We sold a lot, but we also stocked up and bought thousands. We were ready.”

Reporter Jim Camden contributed to this report.

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