retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

For every season—or weather disaster—there is a time. On Monday, when Superstorm Sandy tore through the East Coast, tragically destroying homes, towns and lives in its path, it was the time for retailers to step up or shut up.

As Yahoo Shine first reported on Monday, many major fashion brands did neither.
- Yahoo Shine, Nov. 8, 2012

There’s a theme that runs through the movie Jurassic Park that business needs to constantly remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Sadly, in the midst of Sandy, that rule was forgotten by American Apparel, the Gap and Urban Outfitters, all of which used Twitter to announce poorly thought-out storm-related promotions.

Those ridiculous examples stand in sharp contrast to the many supermarkets in the path of this storm that did their best to actually serve their customers and communities, just as we’ve seen in countless other storms, emergencies and disasters throughout the years. In truth, supermarkets and many other retailers perform so admirably in severe conditions that the lack of news is almost news in itself.

Certainly stores can’t do the impossible and for that reason some run out of key products or are unable to open due to power, water and other issues. But there’s rarely a report of price gouging or any despicable behavior from stores. Somehow, trucks get through, people come to work and in the midst of the worst times, the stores take care of their customers as best they can.

We saw it in countless cases during Sandy including (as Kevin reported last week) offers by local ShopRite stores to provide refrigeration space to people left without power. It came through the special e-mails from Wegmans on coping with the storm and understanding the food safety challenges that accompany power outages. It was there at the IGA in Ridgefield Park, NJ, where the owner-operator personally walked the front-end to talk with customers trying to return to normal. And we saw it at Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot, all of which deployed trucks loaded with important post-storm goods prior to the storm itself.

As Yahoo Shine said: that was retail stepping up.

(One aside here from this native New Yorker: Sandy is obviously getting a lot of attention and for good reason. In part it’s because the storm hit the nation’s media capital, but it’s also because the New York area is so densely populated that the scope of every problem is magnified. For any of you not familiar with the stunning size of New York, consider that Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough, has a population bigger than Houston or 14 entire states. Staten Island, the least populous borough, has as many people as Kansas City, MO.)

While the enormity of this tragedy won’t be forgotten soon, neither should some of the business realities and lessons that follow including the vast differences between shutting and stepping up.

In fact it might be time for talking to and educating shoppers.

When the warning of the storm went up, my family, like so many others in the potential path of destruction, did the exact same thing: we headed to the supermarket. It’s not really a matter of logic; it’s a matter of doing something. Turning to e-commerce suddenly wasn’t an option. The comfort of the local store a mile away mattered. (We were not as lucky as Kevin. Stuck in Southern California as the storm bore down on his family and Connecticut home, he went to the beach.)

The challenge for retailers, I think, is finding a way to highlight service in the midst of a disaster without bragging or seeming insensitive to the plight of customers devastated by the storm. (Refer back to the top of this column for the examples from American Apparel et. al. and do the opposite.)

Perhaps this is a good time to use social media and marketing to highlight the extraordinary efforts of individual associates who left their own damaged homes to get the store up and running. It’s a small gesture that would mean the world to that associate and might remind the community just how local this industry really is.

Because no matter how much things change, that aspect of life really doesn’t. Especially in the worst of times.

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