Washington's winter thus far has left area merchants with an unusually large surplus of cold weather goods, some of them now being offered at bargain prices.
Ski equipment and apparel is the most visible example of unsold merchandise that stores are attempting to sell at special clearances that began weeks earlier than usual because of the absence of snow.
"Practically all the skis and ski clothing are 20 percent off," said Adam Kahane, owner of the Ski Center in Northwest Washington.
Piles of sleds, snow shovels and snow tires make forlorn displays at many area stores, all mute evidence of the winter that didn't come. d
Some cold weather basics, such as blankets, insulation for homes and fireplace accessories, have sold well despite the comparatively warm season, store representative said. But even they conceded that sales probably would have been better if the days and nights had been colder.
"The story is simple," said Walter Bazer, owner of the Fireplace Shop of Bethesda.
"If it is warm weather, it generally cuts into sales. If the weather had been colder, sales would have been better. When it gets cold, (people) start thinking about their fireplace and they need a new screen and they come in to buy."
Overall sales for Washington area retailers have been better during the first 21 days of this year, compared to last year, according to Leonard Kolodny, manager of the retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The warmer winter has allowed stores to remain open, except for one early closing on Jan. 5 when it snowed, Kolodny said. He said stores traditionally do better when there is no interference with scheduled openings.
In some cases, the effect of the wintry warmth on sales has been more than offset by consumer worries about the high cost of heating.
"People are very concerned about the energy situation," said Nonie England, a public relations representative for the Hechinger's chain. As a result, she said, her company has sold a record number of storm doors and windows to homeowners seeking to seal residences against outside cold and expensive heating bills.
Insulation materials, wood-burning stoves and other energy conservation equipment such as weather stripping also have sold better than in the past, England said.
Home heating oil distributors reported sales to Washington area homes are off 10 to 20 percent so far this winter -- and conservation as well as concern about prices appears to be a factor.
"Everybody i've talked to says their deliveries are down more than (what is caused by) the warm weather," said Lester Barker, president of Hessick Fuel Oil in the District. "We're down something over 20 percent (of last year's sales."
"We're off by about 10 percent," said T. J. Fannon, of Fannon Petroleum Services in Alexandria. "It's warmer, and people are burning less . . . but also they're converting to gas and using wood stoves and lowering their thermostats."
The Washington Gas Light Co. confirmed it has acquired new customers -- about 5,000 -- in the last year, many of them homeowners who converted from oil.
Gas company representative Susan Butz said it is difficult to determine if there has been a weather-related decrease in gas consumption.
National Weather Service records show that November and December were both far above normal in temperature, while January so far has been somewhat above normal. November averaged 54.4 degrees -- 6.4 degrees above normal -- equaling the warmest November on record. December averaged 43.7 degrees, also more than 6 degrees above normal.
January so far has averaged about 38.8 degrees, 3.4 degrees above normal for the first 20 days.
Put another way, there has been a total of 1.491 "heating degree days" in November, December and the first 20 days of January, compared with a normal total of 1,968 for the same period. A heating degree day is a measure of coldness determined by the number of degrees the daily average temperature is below a base of 65 degrees.
Heating degree days are used by fuel companies to determine heating needs and delivery schedules.
Despite the relative mildness of the winter, Washington area consumers have been as intent on insulating themselves as their homes, some store officials said.
Sweaters, "snug sacks" and thermal underwear have been widely promoted and purchased by consumers to ward off chills in households and offices with thermostats set at the recommended 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Manufacturers produced and made many sweaters of different weights fashioned for warmth and to compensate for lower temperatures at home," said a representative for Woodward and Lothrop.
Snug sacks, shapeless bags depicted in advertisements as a warm nest for one person to sit and read or watch television, and thermal underwear have gained popularity for the same reasons, the representative said.
Washington furriers, while insisting that their sales haven't suffered, expressed some desire for the temperatures to drop.
But Neiman-Marcus official said that fashion was as much a factor as the weather.
"Suits (for women) were a strong fashion element this year," said Anthony L. Harriman, vice president and store manager for Neiman-Marcus. "And generally, when you sell suits to women, you don't sell as many coats." He described sales of women's suits as "phenomenal," enabling the store's coat-suit combined sales to outdistance last year's sales level.
Garfield, whose average sale is a $5,500 full-length mink coat, said his stores "probably would be doing more (business) with cold weather."
Sales of heavy outercoats, as a general rule, were off at many area department stores, spokesman said. And the weather was responsible, largely they said.
"It (the weather) is scaring the heck out of me," said Randolph Garfield, vice president of Rosendorf/Evans Furs, with three stores in the area. He said sales haven't fallen at his stores because "people know furs are going up in price and they might as well get it now as next year."