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Winter storms a good news/bad news scenario for grocers

February 12, 2014

There's nothing like an impending storm for emptying grocery store shelves. On the other hand, winter storms (think Atlanta a few weeks back) can make it difficult for stores to replenish inventory.

The rush to stores can be particularly intense in places where consumers (think Atlanta) are not used to harsh weather conditions as those in locations (say Green Bay) where temperatures normally plummet and snow falls freely.

A Weather Channel website page includes photo after photo from Twitter showing bare shelves in stores. Of course, grocers are taking steps to minimize the stress their customers and employees feel as storms move in.

"We started to look at the weather this past weekend. We started to see there was potential for weather in the long-range forecast. My team out in the stores had to gear up their orders, because the orders come from different parts of the country," Tim Coggins, a district manager for Kroger told WATE in Knoxville, TN.

While Kroger stores in the area are typically supplied from a distribution center in Atlanta, the storm prompted the chain to instead bring products in from a facility in Louisville, KY.

Editor's note: Consumers have been known to panic in the face of storms. One of my favorite pre-storm moments came back in the winter of 2002 at a local Trader Joe's. When one of the crew saw customers becoming anxious and snippy with other customers and store employees, he got on the intercom and said (paraphrasing), "Attention Trader Joe's customers. We love having you shop our store. It's only a snowstorm. You've seen these before and done just fine. Please have a nice day." (Laughter following and shoppers and crew returned to their normal non-storm states.)

Discussion Questions:

How would you rate the job grocers typically do in meeting product demand both before and after major weather events? Do you have a favorite grocery store storm story?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

What grade would you give the grocery industry for meeting product demand both before and after major weather events?

Comments:

This discussion takes me back to my first job as a part-time clerk in a First National supermarket. The manager told me that the threat of snow was good for business; having it actually snow was not. This is still true today.

One of the major changes from then to now is weather forecasting is better, so both retailers and their customers know further in advance what is likely to happen. This gives both a better chance to prepare before the event. It also means supermarkets can be prepared for the restocking post storm.

This works pretty good when the weather information is accurate. The real issue is when something unexpected happens or the timing of the event changes.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

Obviously, if you do know in advance you can be slightly better prepared. I've learned over the years that depending on the severity of a storm, there may never be anything like fully prepared.

We often forget that just as shoppers are going to have difficulty, so does the supply chain. Trucks have even more challenges than regular motorists in storms like the one facing the South.

In years past, we would call out for extra stock on milk, bread and toilet paper! Key items for a few days of being snowed in. Today, that might be a little different. It may be bottled water, protein bars, but toilet paper just the same.

One of the worst (and there have been many) that I was involved with was in the snow storm of 1978. It took two days for my employer to get to me in a Jeep. Once they did and I was delivered to work, half my day was spent going back out in that Jeep to retrieve other workers. I was asked to bring extra clothes and I actually remained at the store for three days straight. Luckily we had a shower on site!

In other instances when we had ice storms where customers were out of power as was the store, we did everything we could to help anyone with anything they needed. I'll long remember the owners getting milk or items out of a refrigeration truck and giving it to a desperate mother or father. All they would said was, "Come back when the lights come on."

In spite of the few stories of fights or arguments you hear occasionally, I believe the best of most of us comes out at times like these. We can either see the best of us or the worst of us. I tend to believe that grocery retailers tend to do the best they possibly can and go above and beyond always in these circumstances.

'Scanner'

Having worked with grocery retailers in the Mid-Atlantic and South, we've seen firsthand an improved level of responsiveness over the past number of years. I believe this speaks to grocers doing a better job of monitoring weather patterns, nimbly managing distribution logistics and leveraging more accurate short and long-term forecasts.

I would rate many grocers highly (Harris Teeter, Kroger, Publix and Whole Foods) in meeting customer demand, and in recovering fairly quickly after major weather events.

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Jeff Hall, President, Second To None

With the increasing "I want it now" mentality of most consumers, the disappointment/resentment factor is multiplied. I think many consumers wait until the last minute until they see the storm is actually going to hit to pick up groceries as well as ice melt, shovels, sleds, etc....and get OVERLY bent out shape when they are not available. It puts retailers in a win/lose situation.

'OscarSmith'

I was raised with the idea to maintain a stocked pantry and fridge at all times in order to be prepared for storms and for other unexpected emergencies. I have trained my family to do this as well. This includes pet food and toilet paper! Even during the worst -- power outages -- canned veggies and soup heated properly over sterno, cheese chunks and crackers, and dry or canned milk reconstituted can keep the belly full and nourished.

I think stores could do much more to market the benefits of reasonable emergency supply stashes, and teach how planning enables customers to avoid the often dangerous and panic induced runs to the grocery store as a storm hits.

'Liatt'

Snow is not an issue for us in South Florida. But hurricanes are. We face the same grocery store issues then as snow is doing now up North.

Our grocery stores (think Publix) and hardware stores (think Home Depot) do an excellent job keeping the shelves stocked as long as they can before the storms are scheduled to arrive. Thankfully most of them have been false alarms. It is not an easy task. Give them a high five for being good at it.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

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