Biz 101: You Can’t Bargain With Mother Nature


Long stretches of bad weather played havoc with retail sales last winter, but there are lessons to be learned

The winter of 2014 brought record cold and snow throughout North America, and its impact on business and consumer spending was significant and widespread. Just how bad was it? Well, for the S&P 500 companies, the word “weather” was mentioned in almost 200 earnings calls from January through March, which is an 81% increase over the year before.

As retailers look back on last year’s long winter season, the information gurus from Planalytics, a global business weather intelligence company, offer five lessons from the winter of everyone’s discontent that retailers can and should apply to their Winter 2014-15 plans. Each one contains tips for helping retailers “weatherize” their businesses to improve how they manage through winter weather volatility.


Lesson 1: It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over.

While Christmas falls on Dec. 25 every single year, Mother Nature doesn’t always follow a traditional calendar. Most retailers fill their stores with spring merchandise by February or March, but last year cold temperatures and snowfall lingered around in key markets, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

The reality is that spring doesn’t come early (or “on time”) every year, so retailers that can match their extra end-of-season inventories with realistic customer wants and needs can capture incremental sales and end the season clean from an inventory perspective. Mittens, hats and scarves, anyone?


Lesson 2: You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing.

While cold and snow enabled many seasonal categories to have a record-breaking winter, the extreme conditions caused people to hibernate for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, from a foot traffic perspective, the most impactful days likely saw a drop in store traffic and sales as consumers (and employees) simply couldn’t get out to the stores.

As businesses think about the upcoming winter season, here are some strategies to consider for mitigating those “where are all my customers?” days. First, plan for inventory deliveries (Valentine’s Day gift items, for example, or Irish coffee mugs and green jewelry to satisfy St. Patrick’s Day shoppers) well before an anticipated weather event. Loading in seasonal inventory on the forecast of snow and cold is critical to meeting consumer demand regardless of how the weather actually materializes.

Second, small business retailers can get the word out to customers via social media well in advance of major weather events. A simple action such as sending a weather-relevant email to customers with a focus on key seasonal items helps ensure that they know what you have and will plan on coming back to your store with gift lists in hand as soon as the weather clears.

Third, businesses should de-weatherize their historical sales so they can plan from a weather-neutral baseline going forward.


Lesson 3: Media Drives Demand More than the Actual Weather.

As we live in a world of “constant connectivity,” people have continuous access to information. From a weather perspective, consumers get their local forecast via multiple devices and media outlets. Weather is one of the most local of news items to most people. It’s generally one of the first things they check after waking up in the morning and one of the last things they check before going to bed.

From a business perspective, shoppers often make purchasing decisions based on weather forecasts rather than the actual weather that occurs. If the forecast calls for 12 inches of snow, for instance, lots of people automatically check their closets and buy coats, sweaters and scarves in anticipation of snow.  How much snow actually falls is almost immaterial from a business perspective.


Snow covered car windscreen


Lesson 4: Two Inches of Snow in Chicago Is Not the Same as Two Inches of Snow in Atlanta.

Consumers are acclimated to the environments they live in. A forecast of 2 inches of snow in January in Chicago is hardly newsworthy, while the same forecast in Atlanta triggers school closings, transport center shut-downs and food shopping frenzies as consumers gear up to be housebound.

Having a clear understanding of weather’s impact on your customers in your own region of the country can help determine a workable plan for getting shoppers to make regular visits to your store, no matter what the forecast.


Lesson 5: The Hangover Effect Is Real.

While markets that experienced a record cold and snow-filled winter last year shouldn’t necessarily expect to have as extreme conditions this winter, there is what’s known to behavioral scientists as the “hangover effect,” which in shopping terms means that people remember how they got blindsided by what happened last year, and simply assume it’s going to happen to them again.

Shoppers who got caught not buying holiday gifts before bad weather set in last winter, for example, are more likely to make their purchases earlier this year, no matter what the new forecasts say. It’s that lingering hangover effect that businesses can hopefully bank on for early holiday season sales this year.


One Final Suggestion

Nothing lasts forever, not even bad weather. When the snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures finally break, celebrate! Prepare your store for the onslaught of cabin fever shoppers and do it in style.

Announce a “We Survived the Snowstorm!” weekend on Facebook, send out emails with “No More Snow” discount coupons for special merchandise, greet shoppers at the door with hot cocoa and homemade cookies. They’ll appreciate your efforts, and you can appreciate listening to your cash register ring.

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