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With storm looming, Bostonians vow: I’ll shop Saturday

Many residents remained nonplussed as a blizzard homed in on the Bay State.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Many residents remained nonplussed as a blizzard homed in on the Bay State.

With forecasters predicting a blizzard would pound Massachusetts on Friday, Ipswich resident Jamie Wallace made plans to shop for emergency food supplies.

“I’ll probably go on Saturday,” she said.

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Saturday? As in after the storm hits — or potentially during it? Yes, but like all seasoned procrastinators, Wallace has her reasons. Chief among them: she panic-shopped before Hurricane Sandy in October only to have the storm fizzle here.

“I had Spam and Pop-Tarts and other food that I never normally eat on my dining room table for months,” she recalled. “I wound up recycling them via the birds and the squirrels. What a waste.”

The combination of mild winters, a fragile economy, and dire storm forecasts that went bust have combined to confirm a variation on Mark Twain’s observation: Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it — until the last minute.

The wait-and-see shopping style has become so pronounced there are industry terms for it. “People are shopping ‘closer to need,’ or ‘at need,’ ” said Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, an international firm that tracks weather and purchasing patterns for clients including Ace Hardware, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and large supermarket and home improvement chains.

Jamie Wallace of Ipswich planned to wait until well past the last minute to grocery shop for storm supplies. She said she would go to the store on Saturday.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Jamie Wallace of Ipswich planned to wait until well past the last minute to grocery shop for storm supplies. She said she would go to the store on Saturday.

“When the economy went into the tank, people started waiting until the last second to buy a product or service,” he said.

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Noting that Boston hasn’t seen a snowstorm that dropped more than 5 inches since Feb. 27, 2011, he said the “law of recency” also comes into play: It states that the most recent experience is best remembered.

“Many Jersey Shore residents felt that 2011’s Hurricane Irene was over-hyped, and then found themselves unprepared for 2012’s Sandy,” Bernhardt said.

In contrast, he said, in the two years following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “the mere mention of a storm would drive a sellout of plywood” on the Gulf Coast.

As as anyone who shops “at need” knows, the casual attitude can, and often does, result in a desperate store-to-store hunt for a product — D batteries, say, or water — that was plentiful mere hours earlier.

On Thursday afternoon, with clear blue skies outside, the looming storm’s intensity could be felt inside, at Trader Joe’s in Brookline. “I just texted my wife that I’m here with all the blizzard crazies,” said Michael Cagney, a doctoral student at Boston College.

Standing in line, he pointed to an unmanned — but full — cart. “The woman in front of me put her cart here and keeps running to do all her shopping,” he said.

Cagney’s next stop was Target, for a snow shovel. But he wasn’t dreading the retail madness. “It will be good people watching.”

Indeed, with the right attitude, storm shopping can be a form of entertainment. As Renee Deans of Milford discovered when she did some last-minute buying before Hurricane Sandy, that holds true even for employees.

“The man at Target just laughed at me when I asked if they had any batteries left,” the mother of four said.

Part of the reason she procrastinates, she says, is that she doesn’t know what to shop for. “All the bread is always gone when you go to the store, but I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t make that many sandwiches.”

Ben Fishman, an IT specialist from Dorchester, shops on the later end, too, but for a different reason.

“Right now there’s no food in my home,” he said on Wednesday, proclaiming himself perfectly happy with his empty refrigerator. “So why will it be different?”

And yet, even he isn’t immune to the panic that sends people who never cook urgently in search of French toast supplies. “Then I’m stuck in line with everyone else.”

Storm-induced anxiety can get so intense that at Home Depot, managers train front-line employees to deal with crazed shoppers.

“We teach them not to panic along with the customers,” said David Corsetto, a store manager in Somerville.

But even true procrastinators have a hard time not succumbing to frenzy, as warnings of snowmaggedon scream from TV screens, radios, newspapers, and our very palms, as mobile devices mean a person is never more than a nanosecond away from the latest scary weather update.

The public’s fascination with the weather means that meteorologists are under increasing pressure to make predictions as far out as possible, said WBZ-TV’s evening meteorologist, Todd Gutner.

“But that’s where you can get into trouble and get some busted forecasts,” he said, recalling a recent prediction that called for up to a foot of snow over several North Shore towns and 6 inches in Boston. “In the end, the storm did form, but 50 miles off shore. There was a foot of snow falling over schools of fish.”

By Thursday, the stores were already packed, so shopping early was no longer a possiblity for this storm. But John Perry, the author of “The Art of Procrastination,” says the way to make yourself do a dreaded task is to assign yourself a chore you like even less, thereby making the first task relatively attractive.

“Tell yourself the thing you need to do is to learn Chinese,” he advised. “And if you can’t do that, at least make it to the store to get those supplies.”

As painful as last-minute shopping can be, George Khoury, the owner of Bell’s Cash Market in South Boston, says that while customers get “very grabby” when a storm’s bearing down, the mood in the store is more relaxed than it is during man-made challenges — namely the holidays.

“People are less tense,” he said. “They don’t have to buy presents.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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