Long before this weekend's Nor'easter made a muddle of things, Wall Street's mall watchers had cranked it up a notch on this "all-important" retail season. Now, it's really on.

Was the storm the Grinch that stole Christmas, or a miracle that granted shoppers time to max out before year-end and dash for shovels, snow blowers, scarves, and rock salt?

We may be underthinking this, but for now we're going with the logic of a Tweeter Home Entertainment spokeswoman quoted in Reuters: "We hope to make up the sales for December, because Christmas is still going to happen." How very Zen.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Freddie's New Head(ie)

Quasi-governmental mortgage company Freddie Mac(NYSE: FRE) last night named its third chief executive officer in a year. By the end of 2003, Richard Syron will take the reins from Greg Parseghian, who took over for the ousted Leland Brendsel.

Freddie's troubles since June have been well documented, with the company first saying it understated earnings and then recently disclosing that (whoops!) it actually overstated them in one year. The company's lack of quality leadership has been systemic, with the first CEO stepping down in response to the scandal, and the second (Parseghian) being asked by regulators to resign after his reported knowledge of Freddie's questionable accounting practices came out.

The insider nature of both of Freddie's former chiefs, then, is one reason that Syron's appointment is a positive development for the company and its shareholders. Syron's resume includes stints as the president of the Boston branch of the Federal Reserve and head of the American Stock Exchange. His most recent job was as the executive chairman of scientific equipment company Thermo Electron(NYSE: TMO). He's an outsider to Freddie, but has extensive experience in operating big economic entities and dealing with regulators.

He is widely regarded as a strong leader, and is highly respected by his peers and former colleagues. Shareholders should be pleased with this announcement. Of course, there's no way to tell how successful Syron will be in his new position, and Freddie's future is still fraught with challenges, but this is a solid first step towards returning Freddie to respectability.

Quote of Note

"We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?" -- Jean Cocteau

A Dot-Com Christmas

White flurries created blue worries for brick-and-mortar retailers this past weekend. You can't blame them for fretting. Last year's critical holiday shopping season also started strong before December's unkind weather played a part in freezing the buying spirit.

Bad timing for traditional chains can only mean good tidings for the online retailers. The Northeast's first major snowstorm of the season kept shoppers indoors -- in some cases, wired and buying.

We're not just talking about Amazon(Nasdaq: AMZN), even though it also powers the online storefronts of giants like Toys "R" Us(NYSE: TOY) and Target(NYSE: TGT). Last year, deep discounter Overstock(Nasdaq: OSTK) nearly tripled its sales over the holiday quarter, while eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY) clocked in with a 68% spike in gross merchandise sales.

If it's any comfort to the offline retailers, holiday sales won't peak until the Saturday before Christmas. Yet, that's not the case for online retailers that have to make their moves now given the iffy nature of delivery lead times. As the holiday grows closer and free shipping turns to discount promotions on express shipping, the local mall starts to win the pricing advantage over its dot-competition.

Also consider that offline giants like Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) and Best Buy(NYSE: BBY) may have been late to the game, but they, too, are now forces to reckon with on the Internet.

So, if you hear cheery holiday voices singing "the weather outside is frightful" with refrains of "let it snow, let it snow, let it snow," don't look outside for carolers. It may be coming from inside -- your home computer.

Shameless Plug: Pick a Stock Newsletter

Think online retailers have finally found a way to win over shoppers, profitably? You're not alone. Amazon has been singled out in Motley Fool Stock Advisor while Overstock has been written up in Motley Fool Hidden Gems. If you wanna know what other stocks we're recommending, check them out for yourself. A 30-day free trial awaits.

Discussion Board of the Day: Amazon

So you think Amazon will have another strong holiday showing -- that CEO Jeff Bezos finally worked off the jinx of being Time'sMan of the Year a couple of years ago? All this and more -- in the Amazon discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Home Improvement Wars

"We are at war."

"We will do whatever it takes to protect our turf."

Them's fighting words for sure, and you might think they come from Iraq or some other top-of-mind battlefield. But you'd be wrong. They were uttered by Home Depot's(NYSE: HD) chief financial officer, Carol Tome, regarding the company's biggest rival, Lowe's(NYSE: LOW).

What's Lowe's up to? It's encroaching even more into orange territory. In this case, the movement is into Home Depot's own backyard and home base, Atlanta.

A lengthy article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution details the battle, pointing out that while Lowe's has some smaller stores in metro Atlanta, until recently its mega-stores were being built in outlying suburbs. Just as Home Depot is building more stores in metropolitan regions these days, so is Lowe's. (Within a few months, for example, Home Depot will open its first two stores in midtown Manhattan.)

The two new Atlanta Lowe's "big-box" stores will each sport more than 130,000 square feet, and are viewed, at least in part, as representing psychological warfare with their top competitor. Lowe's management explained that decisions about where to locate new units are based on location and expected traffic. (Interestingly, it seems that 74% of Lowe's stores are within 10 miles of a Home Depot. And one of the two new stores is just a parking lot away from one.)

Twenty-five-year-old Home Depot, with its 1,654 stores in 50 states and annual revenues nearing $60 billion, is the No. 2 retailer in America, behind Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), and is the world's largest home-improvement retailer. Lowe's is the second-largest destination for do-it-yourselfers, with 932 stores in 45 states and annual revenues topping $25 billion.

These two companies have been terrific investments for savvy capital allocators. If you're thinking of investing in them yourself, do some research first. Peruse their websites for corporate information, and study their annual and quarterly reports. Perhaps start with some Fool articles, such as Home Depot Nails It, Lowe's Q3 Raises the Bar, and our Dueling Fools on Home Depot vs. Lowe's.

Neither stock seems dirt cheap. Lowe's is trading at a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 25. For context, Hoovers.com shows its 10-year P/E range as being between 14 and 43. Home Depot's P/E is about 20, which is somewhat near the low end of its 10-year range of 13 to 70. (The low of 13 was hit in the past year.)

More Fool News

For a list of all our stories from today, see Today's Headlines.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com, Rex Moore goes Screening for Winners and Mathew Emmert says, " Pay Up, Mr. Softy."

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Paul Elliott, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Jeff Hwang, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Alyce Lomax, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Dave Marino-Nachison, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim