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Warm weather trend could have chilling effect on end-of-year sales

The Avenue at White Marsh shopping center.
The Avenue at White Marsh shopping center. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

With less than a week before Christmas, boots, coats and sweaters are not moving off store shelves as they normally would this time of year. At one local shop, bicycles are more popular than skis. Meanwhile, some ski resorts are still waiting to open.

Blame it on the weather.

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In the Baltimore region and other areas accustomed to chillier Decembers, it just hasn't felt like the holiday season. That could mean lost sales for cold weather-dependent businesses and retailers hopeful for good tidings from cash registers.

The month is likely to rank as one of Baltimore's mildest Decembers on record. While temperatures snapped back to normal this weekend, another surge of warmth is forecast through Christmas, with highs jumping back into the 60s.

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This weekend's temporary cold snap may have come too late to help spur the buying frenzy for items retailers count on in an otherwise tepid season.

"Our [boots] are not selling as well as we would like this time of year … and sweatshirts are selling not as quickly," across several regions, said Jeff Bowden, director of marketing for Maryland-based DTLR, a chain of more than 100 stores in 13 states. "We don't want to panic yet. We don't want to not have the inventory when it does get cold."

If it doesn't, January will likely be highly promotional, with prices slashed on outerwear, Bowden said, but "right now, we're not doing anything too drastic."

So far, retail forecasters are not backing off earlier calls for a better holiday season than in 2014, with sales increases expected in the 3.7 percent to 3.9 percent range, including online. Final results won't be out until the end of the fourth quarter for most retailers. But some business categories undoubtedly will be hit harder than others, experts said.

"The weather this year is a legitimate reason to cite sluggish sales of apparel, no question about it," said John Yozzo, managing director at FTI Consulting Inc., which is monitoring retailers' performance this season. "There's a real tendency to blame the weather every year if things are not going right, but this year it's fairly legitimate. It's hard to go shopping for winter wear when you're wearing a T-shirt."

Department stores, more than other retail categories, depend heavily on apparel sales as a staple and top gift item.

"A tremendous amount of apparel that department stores stock are not selling because they're related to cold weather, which we haven't had, and they're all marked down," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York-based national retail consulting firm. "They're selling the No. 1 gift item [apparel] for Christmas, but the warm weather is blowing away sales in this key category."

Yozzo expects a last-minute push this coming week, as do some trade groups, with the National Retail Federation forecasting that 90 percent of holiday shoppers still need to buy gifts, food and decor. But after a stronger November, Yozzo said he has seen a pullback in spending, with specialty apparel and department stores struggling the most, and some retailers, such as Macy's, taking a beating in the stock market.

The warm spell, he said, could have a dampening effect on the number of shoppers.

"There are a lot of other things you could be doing now," he said. "You just know if you can hold out until January, you'll get clearance deals."

Shoppers have been offered deep discounts, with items such as sweaters, cardigans and jackets up to 40 percent off at Urban Outfitters; boots starting at $26.99 and kids' fleece apparel starting at $4.99 at JCPenney; and 25 percent markdowns on Under Armour hoodies and fleece pants seemingly everywhere.

Retailers and apparel makers aren't panicking yet, despite some reports that they're sitting on excess inventory.

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Under Armour has not seen a drop-off in sales of cold weather items such as fleece or hoodies on its websites, said Jason LaRose, chief revenue officer for digital at the Baltimore-based company.

"The calendar dictates more this time of year than the weather," LaRose said. "Christmas is in a week no matter if it's warm or cold."

Besides, he added, "a really huge portion of our business is pretty weather-resistant," such as the Stephen Curry basketball shoes and other footwear that have been strong sellers this season and year-round.

Through Wednesday, temperatures at BWI Marshall Airport were averaging nearly 48 degrees, more than 9 degrees above normal. If the month were to end there, it would set a new record by about 2 degrees.

Sunshine and mild temperatures are common in this region at the start of winters with a strong El Nino, the warming of equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean off the South American coast that is occurring now. In recent weeks, high-pressure systems off the southeastern U.S. coast have been persistent, keeping skies mostly clear and, with their clockwise motion, pumping warm air up from the Southwest, said Kevin Witt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

It's impossible to predict how long those patterns will remain, he said. In addition to warm weather, El Nino can also produce the conditions for major snowstorms like the ones that hit in the winter of 2009-2010. It sends a lot of moisture into the atmosphere streaming across the southern part of the country. In some El Nino winters, that moisture collides with cold air on the East Coast and comes down as heavy snow.

However, the weather so far means sales of coats and other winter clothing are slow at Princeton Sports, a sporting goods store with locations in Mount Washington and Columbia. But it has otherwise been good for business, owner Paul Davis said.

Mild conditions mean the stores' sales of bicycles and tennis rackets are strong, Davis said, adding, "We are very lucky we have more than just one sport to represent."

But with memories of two frigid winters and plenty of snow in their minds, customers have rented more than 800 pairs of skis for the season since October, he said. Princeton staff also are busy working on skis that customers have brought in for tune-ups.

This season, many skiers may not hit the slopes until January. Most Mid-Atlantic ski resorts, which generally hope to open around Thanksgiving or just after, haven't opened yet because there's been too little snow and not enough cold weather to make it.

It's not unheard of for the ski season to start so late in a region where mild weather can pop up any time of the year, said Jamie Bausman, a spokesman for Whitetail Resort. But it's later than some snow fans have gotten used to.

"We were just spoiled the last couple of years," Bausman said.

Whitetail doesn't have an opening date scheduled. Resort officials want to wait until they can get down a consistent base of man-made snow, if not the real thing, before announcing anything.

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Liberty Mountain Resort and Roundtop Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania, and Wisp Resort in Garrett County have not announced opening dates on their websites, either. Farther afield, Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia wasn't open Friday but hoped to open some slopes Saturday.

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Some business owners are grateful for the warm spell. Count John Bacon of Van Dyke & Bacon shoes among them. The company runs seven stores, all stand-alone locations, including four under the Van Dyke & Bacon banner.

"I love this weather," Bacon said recently after a string of days in the high 60s. "If you talk about a snowy day, how many people come in our doors versus warm weather? Our traffic flow is much better when the weather is better.

"Yes, our boot business is down and that's not a great thing, but the regular shoe business is up, and regular shoe business is more of the overall business."

Mariah Oates, a 22-year-old Windsor Mills resident, has not let higher temperatures dissuade her from buying cold-weather gear — especially at deeply discounted prices. She is convinced she will need the new jacket, chunky sweaters, cardigans and boots she has bought in the past month. She's giving newly purchased gloves and scarves to friends.

The warm weather "makes me second-guess my shopping, but I know that no matter what, we will get a cold winter," she said. "Personally, I cannot be caught in the cold."

She has drawn a line, however, on snow boots.

"I'm trying to hold off on that," she said.

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