retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger," Mel Brooks once said. "Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

Today I’m writing about a tragedy. Late Friday, a stunning windstorm, called a “Derecho” for its incredibly straight and destructive path, exploded from Illinois to the Atlantic Ocean, including right through my neighborhood. It left a trail of damage, power problems and death. In one of those strange realities of storms, some streets near mine sustained only minor damage. My street and my house got clobbered.

I want to keep this in context. All the houses on the street are still standing and no one is homeless, so I shouldn’t be too dramatic. No one was injured or died. But, century-old trees snapped like twigs falling on cars, homes and yards. We were left with a sea of downed limbs, roof damage, water restrictions, spoiled food and 100-degree heat without any hope of relief.

There I was, trying to clean up the debris and cope with the heat - and doing so with a shoulder still recovering from surgery - and what was I doing? Mostly, looking for business lessons. (After all, that's what we do here at MNB...)

First of all - and this won't come as a shock to you - I really missed the local supermarket when it has no power for days on end. Our nice suburban lifestyle suddenly seemed a little fragile when we didn't know where our food was coming from.

On the other hand, supermarkets do a great job helping. Although the closest Giant store was left dark, the next closest Harris-Teeter and Safeway both came through. Ice and water were plentiful and welcome, and the shelves stayed wonderfully stocked through it all. (To be fair, news reports said open Giants were doing the same.)

Interestingly though, the list of basic necessities has clearly changed. On Sunday morning as the heat rose, my wife and I were struck by the number of people sitting outside Safeway with laptops, iPads and cell phones plugged into the store’s exterior outlets. The Safeway associate I chatted with was incredibly pleasant and even made a point to come get me when the next ice delivery rolled in. (By the way, ice still came at a special bargain price. Even though I would have paid more, I got a discount. I’ll remember that, Safeway!)

The same rush for power outlets was also evident at our closest shopping mall, where iPad-wielding refugees huddled on the floor as they juiced up. The food court, the outlets and the nail salons were packed beyond Christmas-time levels. There seems to be a real lesson in priorities at times like these. (I know how important power was to me - I had a column due!) People need food, clothing and shelter, plus a way to talk about what happened on Facebook. Oh and they need pedicures, which I don’t really understand, but I’ll let that go for the moment.

Compare those levels of community awareness to the Professional Golfers Tour, which was playing in our area. (You might have seen the Saturday coverage when no fans were allowed on the course.) I’m not sure why they decided to keep playing in the middle of a declared disaster area. After all, the Sunday traffic tied up police and streets at a time when both were needed for other purposes. Also, local news radio stations kept telling us to check various websites for assistance. That’s little help when there’s no power.

But let’s get to the best lesson of customer service...

When we discovered damage to our roof and realized another rainstorm was in the forecast, my wife and I worried about the leaks to come. Luckily, our insurance company, AMICA, had other ideas. AMICA is frequently rated as a top choice for service by Consumer Reports and we saw why. They quickly dispatched a roofing crew to our house for the sole purpose of making sure the roof didn’t leak again - which not only helped us, but also reduced their potential exposure and liability.

In the process, everyone on my street came by and asked for the phone number of my insurance company. (A day later, as we dumped the spoiled contents of our refrigerator, AMICA called to say a check to replace the food was already on the way.)

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to make one see things in a new light. I've never quite appreciated my local supermarkets and my longtime insurance company in quite the same way that I do today.

Now, if only the damn lights and air conditioning would go back on...

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View: