Retail: Weathering the Storm

Sunday, July 4, 2010 | 10:38 PM

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“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" ~Mark Twain

Although the nuances of the British weather system have the ability to befuddle even the smartest meteorologist, one can usually expect a colder climate from October to March and hotter weather from May to September.

In the same way, as a retailer, it’s pretty safe to assume that during the winter months more heaters, raincoats and winter boots will be bought, whilst in summer it would be sensible to stock up on air coolers, barbecues and beachwear. In the past month alone, as the mercury rises, Waitrose has reported a 6.1% rise in sales with traditional picnic fare like salads up nearly 30%: great results, but hardly unprecedented. These assumptions are part of staple planning for all retailers, and shape the buying patterns for such seasonal products.

However, as the weather seems to be becoming increasingly unreliable, retailers often have to act fast to climate changes. For example, in 2007 freak stormy weather in June – usually a quiet month for online retailers - saw shoppers buy from the comfort of their homes, rather than brave the appalling weather. Play saw a 33% increase in sales compared the the year before. Stuart Rowe, spokesperson for said "every year we see a decrease in sales during the summer months as consumers spend their time in their garden, the parks or high street but this year has been a monumental exception"[1].

Likewise, severe snow in January 2010 resulted in pubs and restaurants reporting a like-for-like sales drop of 5% as people stayed at home rather than braving the snow[2]. "With so many city centres feeling more like ghost towns it is perhaps surprising that the figures weren't worse,” said Peter Martin of Peach Factory, which produced the research[3]. At the same time, Pets at Home reported a 70% rise in dog coats, at a time when the product would usually have been on its way out until next Winter. In the same period, John Lewis saw a 1.4% sales drop as snow kept shoppers off the high street. Importantly, online sales rocketed by 56% with comfort food such as frozen chops and tinned beans performing well[4].

Optimisation & SEO Ideas:

  • Change your ad text. Signal your customers to the urgency of buying at this time of increased demand with messages like, “While Stocks Last” or “Stock Just in” if you have a plentiful supply.
  • Make sure you can fill any holes in your offline product offering online. If you can’t get paddling pools in your store in time, but think you could ship online orders to coincide with a bout of hot weather, make sure you have ads showing. Give realistic delivery times too, or you could be facing returns.
  • Prepare your paid search campaigns far in advance wherever possible, to make sure you have established some history and a good quality score on your seasonal product keywords by the time they come into fashion.
  • Your ability to restock according to freak weather conditions is crucial, and depends a lot on the quality of your supply chain. Either way, prepare your online campaigns to reflect the situation: if you have something or can get something in stock, prepare the necessary ad text and keywords. In the same way, make sure you’re keeping an eye on products that may have gone out of stock. For example, you don’t want to be paying for clicks on “desk fan” during a heat wave if you have none in stock!
  • It sounds ridiculous, but watch the weather forecast! A 10-day one if you can. If sun is predicted, make sure your bbqs, garden furniture and toys, summer apparel is all in stock and well presented on your site and in your advertising campaigns. If it’s set to rain or be very cold (which, let’s face it, is much more common in the UK!), remember that people will be less likely to leave the house, so products like DVDs, Books, CDs and Homeware may be more in demand, especially if long periods of bad weather are predicted.
  • Remember, freak weather conditions trigger unusual buying patterns, which may skew your ordinary sales figures. People buying paddling pools in a sudden April heat wave, for example, are simply moving their usual “June purchase” a few months forward. Don’t be alarmed then, if your usual peak seasons for particular products are not as great. As the Greenlight white paper on weather and retail says, “All these purchases would have still been made, but were brought forward or postponed due to weather abnormalities”[5].

[1]Fashion United, 4th July 2007
“Like-for-like sales sink 5% under January snow”, Peach Report, 14 Feb 2010
[3]“Coffer Peach Business Tracker January 2010 figures - Pub and restaurant groups count cost of January blizzards”, KPMG, Jan 2010
“Pets at Home enjoys winter sales boost with dog coats”, Guardian 15th January 2010
Greenlight White Paper:”The effects of weather on Internet retail sales”