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A snowy winter puts heaters, coats in short supply

With the East Coast slated for another big winter storm this week—and accompanying snowfall of up to a foot in many cities in the Northeast—it may not be the usual run on milk, bread and eggs that shoppers need to worry about.

Retail analysts say the unexpectedly snowy winter has prompted sold-out status on bigger-ticket winter staples, including portable generators, room heaters and snow blowers as well as winter coats, snow shovels and boots.

"We had a pretty mild winter the last two or three winters," said Douglas Green, principal at MSC, a Philadelphia-based retail advisory firm. "I'm buying two years' worth of hats, coats, fill-in-the-blank in one season.

"We're hearing from a lot of our clients [that] outerwear in particular is extremely thin on the shelves," he said.

A man in Boxford, Mass. uses a snowblower to clear snow from his front driveway after a nor'easter covered New England, January 3, 2014.
Joanne Rathe | The Boston Globe | Getty Images
A man in Boxford, Mass. uses a snowblower to clear snow from his front driveway after a nor'easter covered New England, January 3, 2014.

Oddly enough, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are adding to the demand.

"In Olympic years, there's an overall heightened interest and awareness of outdoor sports," said Hyaat Chaudhary, CEO of Carbon Media Group, a digital consulting firm in Bingham, Mich., that works with retailers of outdoor goods.

That adds to the competition for gloves, hats and other crossover gear that are necessities for both those who want to enjoy the snow and those who want to stay warm while digging out of it.

(Read more: Beware the post-snowstorm price gougers)

Crimped supplies are not just occurring in winter-specific gear.

"We are seeing a limited supply of television sets, because people are getting cabin fever and have decided to replace or upgrade their televisions," said Jerry Welkis, president of Welco Realty, a retail consulting firm in New Rochelle, N.Y.

A resulting scarcity? In-store discounts. Many retailers, though already offering spring fashions, may hold off on scheduled markdowns of the few winter items left on racks, according to Green at MSC.

"That demand definitely has an impact on how they push out sales," he said.

On the grocery front, consumers who expect to be housebound (maybe without power) tend to stock up on items other than the usual perishables of milk, bread and eggs, said Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game. Staples such as toilet paper and diapers fly off the shelves, as do batteries and fire logs.

"It's all those survival things that run out," she said.

Another oddity: Shoppers may see a smaller selection of cat litter—a must for snowbound pet owners and for giving cars traction on snowy driveways and parking lots. (Along the same lines, deicing salt is tough to find, according to analysts.)

(Read more: Upside to bad weather may be better workers)

Retailers most likely to be hurt by the winter demand are mom-and-pop retailers who don't have additional inventory to pull, Green said.

But even big chains have had a difficult job resupplying with the weather delaying shipments, Welkis said, adding that with storms hitting multiple areas of the country, it's tough to know where any extra supply should be rerouted.

Supermarket shelves tend to be restocked more quickly—provided that stores have enough time between storms to receive shipments, said Gault at The Grocery Game. Shoppers may even see more competitive deals on needed items. Acme Markets, which operates 112 stores in the Northeast, recently offered a "winter storm recovery discount" of 5 percent, she said.

(Read more: Cold temperature light a fire under natural gas)

Chaudhary at Carbon Media said shoppers may find their best bet for snagging a hard-to-find winter item is online, as stores' Web systems can move merchandise more quickly.

"In cases like this, they'd prefer to sell it online," rather than continuously reroute inventory to stores where demand is surging, he said.

More retailers are experimenting with so-called weather-targeted online deals, which could consist of an extra discount to lure snowed-in consumers or a specific offer based on browsing history, Chaudhary said.

Of course, buying online presents another challenge: Will those boots or that generator arrive before the next storm? Shoppers may need to shell out extra for expedited shipping, and cross their fingers that the weather isn't bad enough to delay delivery.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @Kelligrant and on Google.

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