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Holiday sales delayed by massive U.S. snowstorm

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A blizzard in the U.S. Northeast this weekend postponed about $1 billion US in holiday retail sales by keeping shoppers out of stores in the days after Christmas, research firm ShopperTrak said today.

The snowstorm shut roads and canceled flights in New York City and created havoc across the  Northeast, where shopper traffic was 11.2 percent below ShopperTrak's expectations for Sunday Dec. 26 and off 13.9 percent on Monday Dec. 27.

The firm said sales for the entire November and December holiday period are on track to be up 4 percent, helped by strong sales in November and Dec. 23, a particularly heavy day for shopping before Christmas.

It expects consumers who stayed home because of the snowstorm will venture out and shop more in the coming days.

"While we do think there will be some retail strength later this week and into the weekend as folks begin to dig out, it will be interesting to see if levels recover in time to boost December sales and the overall holiday shopping season," ShopperTrak co-founder Bill Martin said in a statement.

Other analysts agreed that the blizzard, which dropped 20 inches of snow on Central Park in New York City and more in suburban areas, should only put a small dent into holiday season.

International Council of Shopping Centers chief economist Michael Niemira told Reuters the snowstorm could lower the December sales growth rate by 0.5 percentage point, though some purchases may show up in January.

Scott Bernhardt, the  chief operating officer of Planalytics, put the hit at 0.25 percentage point, saying that people will eventually go to malls to redeem gift cards and exchange gifts, which they normally do on Dec. 26 and the following days.

While the gift cards themselves don't generate new sales, customers often end up buying more items when they redeem gift cards or exchange gifts they didn't like.

The Standard & Poor's Retail Index is close to a 42-month high reached earlier in December on hopes a strong holiday season will add momentum to consumer spending into 2011 and propel an economic recovery.

Most analysts and research firms are expecting holiday retail sales to improve from 2009's sales.

The National Retail Federation sees holiday sales up 3.3 percent, compared with a 0.4 percent increase last year and a 3.9 percent fall in 2008 due to the financial crisis.

SALES OFF BEFORE BLIZZARD

U.S retail sales fell 4.1 percent in the week ending on Christmas Day, according to ShopperTrak, largely because Dec. 26 fell on a Sunday this year and was not included in the week's sales.

Dec. 26 was the third biggest shopping day a year ago. The day could be as low as 10th in sales this year, ShopperTrak said.

ShopperTrak said that the start of inclement weather in the Midwest, Northeast and South regions likely lowered spending for the week too.

ShopperTrak noted that Dec. 23 was the season's biggest shopping day after Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in November and the unofficial beginning of the holiday spending rush.

Americans spent $7.86 billion on Dec. 23, while Black Friday accounted for $10.69 billion in sales, ShopperTrak said.

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