BLIZZARD OF 2003 CAN'T BURY SUPERMARKET SALES

Supermarket operators along the East Coast marched through last week's blizzard like veteran soldiers, hardly missing a step despite the assault of 35 mile-per-hour winds and two feet of snow that paralyzed the region.Several companies said they were able to keep their stores open despite the storm that began over the Presidents' Day holiday weekend in the Mid-Atlantic and swept up the coastline,

Supermarket operators along the East Coast marched through last week's blizzard like veteran soldiers, hardly missing a step despite the assault of 35 mile-per-hour winds and two feet of snow that paralyzed the region.

Several companies said they were able to keep their stores open despite the storm that began over the Presidents' Day holiday weekend in the Mid-Atlantic and swept up the coastline, burying everything east of Ohio in swirling white powder.

The storm cost department stores and other general merchandise retailers more than $400 million in business and drove Presidents' Day sales down more than 50% compared with last year, according to some reports. But supermarket companies polled by SN said a surge in business before the storm compensated for the downturn while the snow shut down roads for a day.

"It was a slow day, but no stores actually closed," said Rich Savner, spokesman, Pathmark, Carteret, N.J. "That's a tribute to the dedication of the people operating those stores. Even if we only had five or 10 people operating the stores, none of them closed."

He said the slow sales on the day of the storm followed on the heels of a surge in business the preceding day as consumers stocked up on staples like milk, bread and eggs.

"Some of the snow-related items like rock salt and windshield wiper fluid were certainly moving at high volume," he added.

Although deliveries to the stores were delayed, he said most stores were able to replenish their stock within about 24 hours of the period of high demand.

Barry Scher, spokesman, Giant Food, Landover, Md., said the chain kept most of its stores open throughout the day on Sunday, but it had to close about 40 outlets Sunday evening because employees could not get to the stores.

"A lot of our people walked to work -- that's how we were able to be open in the first place," he said, noting that all but emergency vehicles were prohibited from the roads in Virginia, Maryland and Washington.

Giant stores ran short of some perishables, especially milk and bread, he said, adding that consumers had already been stocking up on certain items in the week prior to the storm because of government alerts about terror attacks.

While the terror alerts boosted sales of bottled water, batteries and candles, the focus switched to more traditional grocery products like milk, bread, luncheon meats and toilet paper as the storm approached, he explained.

One of Giant's sister chains, Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., also owned by Ahold USA, Chantilly, Va., was able to keep all its stores open and well-stocked during the blizzard, a spokesman told SN.

"There was so much advance notice that it gave us time to prepare and get stocked up on the things we needed," said Rick Stockwood, spokesman, Stop & Shop. He said the company's delivery drivers "had no problems getting through."

Lynn High, a spokeswoman for Supervalu, Minneapolis, which operates about 60 Metro and Shoppers Food Warehouse stores in the Baltimore and Washington areas, said all of those stores also remained open during the storm.

"From the distribution side of the business, some of our facilities were more affected than others, but we were able to keep all of our stores supplied," she added.

Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., which is accustomed to heavy snowfall in its upstate New York markets, had to close six stores -- three in New Jersey and three in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania -- because employees could not get to them, Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for the company, told SN.

"There were states of emergency in both those areas, so neither customers nor employees were able to get to the stores," she said.

She said delivery trucks were able to reach the stores with supplies the next day.

Home delivery also was delayed for a day at some of the Web-based services in the Northeast.

Peapod, the Ahold-owned online grocery service offering delivery in parts of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, moved up some deliveries that had been scheduled to go out Monday afternoon to go Monday morning instead as the storm approached. Those orders that did not get delivered before the storm arrived were handled on Tuesday, Stockwood of Stop & Shop explained.

"Customers were able to use the Web site to reschedule their deliveries," he said.

At Fresh Direct, the New York-based online service, all orders were canceled on Monday because of the road-use restrictions, according to Joe Fedele, co-founder of the company.

He said the company called all 1,950 customers that had been expecting deliveries on Monday and rescheduled them for Tuesday. The company's 300,000-square-foot warehouse began receiving delayed deliveries from suppliers soon after the storm subsided, he said.