Memorial Day originated as a way to honor Union soldiers who died during the Civil War.
It has since morphed into the unofficial start of the picnic season - and an important time for sales of summer-related items.
"Memorial Day is incredibly important because it is one of only a few three-day weekends for retailers," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
Stores like Meijer Inc., which offers all the fixings for a picnic as well as patriotism-themed items such as flags, and Kohl's Corp., which offers shorts and bathing suits, pull out all the stops to entice customers to shop before and during the Memorial Day weekend, retailing experts said.
"It gives retailers a chance to show off the summer line at the same time they are clearing inventory off the shelves as far as spring merchandise goes," Mr. Krugman said.
Most important then, he added, is what's happening outside the stores.
"If it's too cold or too warm, that has a direct impact on what the consumer does," he said. "We like weather to be seasonal."
Dan Donovan, a spokesman for the Giant Eagle grocery chain, said Memorial Day and Independence Day are the two biggest cookout days during the year, so the Pittsburgh chain lays in bigger-than-usual amounts of all picnic-oriented foods, including hot dog and hamburger meats, buns, and salads.
"We bring items such as flags, grills, and grilling and picnic accessories into our supermarkets on a seasonal basis, and all of these items [usually] do very well," he said.
Rainy, cold weather, such as the Toledo area has experienced recently, depresses the sale of summer items, he said.
But he hopes predicted warmer weather this week will bring shoppers. "We believe that this Memorial Day weekend will be particularly strong as customers look to spend quality time outdoors," said Mr. Donovan.
But retailers acknowledge that consumers' interest in flags, bunting, and other patriotism-related items seems to be waning after hitting a zenith in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We sold a lot of flags to the cemeteries for the veterans' graves, and our flag sales have been very brisk for home," said Fred Bretzloff, owner of the Yankee Doodle Flag Co. in Sylvania Township.
"But we've gone back to [pre-9/11] normal levels," he added.
Christine Humphries, district manager for the five-store Gen's Hallmark chain, said she decided to run a 75-percent-off pre-Memorial Day sale on all things military-related because of the lack of interest in the items.
"We had strong steady sales until six months ago, and now it's just been sitting there," she said.
"We've got statues, photo albums, scrapbooks, and a lot of figurines."
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at