retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

It’s been a week of reflection for those of us left in the dark by Hurricane Sandy, the third storm in the past 14 months to knock much of my small Connecticut community off the power grid.

Once again, we were fortunate compared to our neighbors along the East Coast who suffered such devastating losses and are struggling to rebuild their lives. Without electricity or internet, we learned yet again to appreciate the simple things. The morning newspaper delivered in the driveway. The ring of a landline telephone. Mail delivery. A cup of hot coffee. Businesses doing the right thing for their customers and community. And, in the wake of all the storm damage, the stoic linemen from Texas and Missouri who traveled across the country to reconnect us.

Happily, examples of the “right thing” have outnumbered stories of unscrupulous business practices, but the balance may be tested in areas where recovery could take months and even years. The threat of a Nor’easter slamming the area today has only heightened concerns.

What has become clear is that meaningful and relevant outreach engenders good will that will be remembered long after the storm has cleared. As Michael Sansolo noted on MNB yesterday, supermarkets and hardware stores performed admirably in a most difficult time. Small businesses once again made a huge impact by quickly responding with the basics: free coffee, water, ice, access to charging stations and wifi. Spas and private fitness facilities opened their doors to anyone who needed a shower. Volunteers fanned out with supplies and helping hands.

Major corporations also showed innovative outreach. The folks in hard-hit New Jersey flocked to Tide’s Loads of Hope, a mobile laundromat stationed in a Lowe’s parking lot providing free laundry service to those impacted by the storm and relief workers. Created after Hurricane Katrina, Loads of Hope has helped more than 38,000 families in 13 states.

Other examples include:

• U-Haul is offering affected families 30 days of free storage.

• Lowe’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart are providing supplies and sizable contributions to the Red Cross.

• Many major banks, including Chase and Wells Fargo, are waiving fees on ATM withdrawals, overdrafts and late payments.

• Airbnb, an online booking site for inns and bed-and-breakfasts, waived all fees for 20,000 listings in affected areas.

• Duracell sent out its "Power Forward" centers give Hurricane Sandy's electricity-less victims the chance to charge phones, as well as to grab free batteries for flashlights and lanterns.

• Chevrolet donated 50 large vans to the Red Cross to deliver supplies.

• Anheuser-Busch switched a line at its Cartersville, Ga., brewery from beer to potable water to produce more than a million cans of emergency drinking water for those in need.

• Goya Foods donated over 300,000 pounds of Goya products and over 25,000 meals to victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.

• And in a development meaningful to already stressed-out college applicants (including my daughter), many schools extended the Nov. 1 deadline for early decision and early action applications.

Now to the other side. Michael’s column yesterday noted the ill-timed Hurricane Sandy sales pitches by American Apparel, Gap and Urban Outfitters. I was particularly offended by the American Apparel ad which targeted the nine hurricane-stricken states and read: “In case you’re bored during the storm, just enter SANDYSALE at Checkout.”

After an intense backlash on Twitter, an American Apparel marketing rep attempted to spin the reaction and told the Fashionista site “we never meant to offend anyone.”

It gets worse. Today I read that CEO Dov Charney was unmoved and unapologetic about his marketing staff capitalizing on the hurricane, noting the online sale would only generate tens of thousands while the storm would cost his stores a million dollars at a minimum. “We’re here to sell clothing,” he told Business Week. “I’m sleeping well at night knowing this was not a serious matter."

Are you kidding me? You’re sleeping well while 115 known victims are mourned, thousands of people have lost their homes and thousands more are huddled in a cold dark dwelling or apartment fearing the next storm? Is that really the message you want to send to customers?

Maybe I’m tired and grumpy after a week of no power, but my feeling is this: American Apparel blew it. In its cavalier attitude toward people who were hurting, it demonstrated anything but a typically American compassion. Unlike, say, those linemen from Texas and Missouri, who demonstrated the best.

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