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Hurry Up and Buy Those Flip-Flops—A Blizzard Is Coming

Slide off that winter coat, strap on those sandals and get ready to soak up some sun.

At least, that's the message retailers are sending to consumers, as they stock their shelves with brightly colored tank tops and flip-flops despite the latest snowstorm pounding the Northeast US.

Woman window shopping on a snowy street
Stuart O'Sullivan | Stone | Getty Images
Woman window shopping on a snowy street

Though the months immediately following the holidays are typically slower for retailers, slim inventories and slightly better-than-expected holiday sales brought a quicker depletion of winter apparel than typical years, said Brian Sozzi, equity research analyst at Wall Street Strategies.

And with yet another storm delivering about 20 inches of snow and blizzard-like conditions in some areas, the shortage could have a negative impact on retailers' February same-store sales.

"Spring fashions aren't exactly on your mind when you've got a foot of snow on the ground," said George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants.

Because the onslaught of cold weather has lasted for so long and spread across most the country, Paul Walsh, senior vice president of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, said February's same-store sales could come in lower than many are predicting. Walsh adds, March could also disappoint if the weather doesn't improve before April.

Before the week's new batch of storms, eight major US cities from New York City to Atlanta had already received nearly 250 more inches of snow than in an average year, with five metropolitan areas seeing record amounts, according to The Weather Channel.

One of these cities was Washington, D.C., which has already received 56 inches of snow — 43 inches more than the average.

Because large buildups of snow often create roadblocks to their stores, they tend to be the biggest problem for retailers in the winter, Whalin said.

But this year, even in places that have seen little snow, colder than typical temperatures have slowed traffic and lessened consumers' desire for warm-weather apparel, which they have to wait weeks to wear. This becomes even more of an issue in times of reduced consumer confidence and spending.

"I think it speaks to the broader problem in retail — long lead times and the desire of the consumer to buy closer to need," Sozzi said.

Nonetheless, Gap's Old Navy store in midtown Manhattan displayed a rainbow of purple, blue and green flip-flops on its wall, while Ann Taylor Loft offered spring-colored tees at 2 for $30.

Even stores such as Macy's , which still had gloves and jackets available, showed their new spring fashions more prominently, greeting shoppers with yellows, lime greens and oranges as they stepped off the elevator into the women's section.

What's more, Sozzi said, some stores have already begun marking down their spring apparel. Aeropostale , for example, is selling short-sleeve polos "buy one, get one free," while Old Navy is holding a spring Fundamentals sale, boasting its "lowest prices of the season" on flip-flops and men's shorts.

But some of these promotions may be planned.

While Walsh said early markdowns can have a negative impact on retailers' bottom lines, Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, said they may be a good strategy for retailers with strong merchandise. By offering discounts at the start of the season, there's a good chance bargain-hungry shoppers will return to the stores in later months, hoping to find similar deals, he said.

Shopper with shopping bags
Michele Constantini | PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections | Getty Images
Shopper with shopping bags

Beemer said he doesn't think retailers' lack of winter styles is much of a crisis, as they typically put out spring merchandise by President's Day weekend — one of their most important weekends before Memorial Day, he said.

He pointed to the fact that spring clothing always hits the stores before the weather turns warmer, saying that doesn't stop women from snatching up the latest trends.

"People like to forecast what they see coming," he said. "They buy [spring clothes] as a pick me up, hoping that they can get there quicker."

Despite the obvious lack of immediately wearable clothes, Whalin said he doesn't think retailers cut back too much on winter inventories, as there was no way to know how rough the season would be six months ahead of time, when most stores place their orders.

And regardless of February's slowdown, "cabin fever" and pent-up demand will help retailers survive the winter chill once the weather clears, Walsh said.

"When [consumers] get out they tend to spend," Whalin said. "Retailers will welcome them with open arms."

They just need to hope it happens before April.

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