What to Do When You’re Not in Control: Being Proactive About the Weather and External Events

This is a guest post by Joanna Rutter.

Retail is just as much about planning 18 months ahead as it is about reacting quickly when unexpected changes pop up. Many expected disruptions can happen within your store’s ecosystem — staff calling out last-minute, shipments coming in late or your internet going down — the issues you’re fully equipped to handle.

But what about the ecosystem outside of your storefront? What happens when a street fair siphons away your usual lunchtime passerby traffic for a weekend, or when a streak of ugly weather brings your monthly sales down?

Here’s a handful of stories and research pieces that explain how your business can be affected by weather and event-related disruptions, and what you can do to plan to recover potentially lost traffic and sales the next time something unexpected affects your store.

Weather disruptions

We know from our own lived experience that weather has the power to affect the way we make choices. Weather marketing expert A. T. Steele pioneered the research that proves this vernacular knowledge in retail almost 80 years ago in 1951 in “Weather’s Effect on the Sales of a Department Store,” published in the Journal of Marketing, finding that changes in weather are responsible for nine out of 10 in-store dollars retailers make above or below their average revenue.

That’s a lot of volatility, which is why Steele advises retailers to hire a meteorologist, and why retail researchers have been trying for decades to identify the best way to predict success against weather variables.

However, weather affects your sales with or without an in-house meteorologist. “Weather is not under management’s control, yet retailers must respond to changes in the weather on a regular basis,” wrote Kyle Murray in “The effect of weather on consumer spending.” “Retailers are often forced to respond to the effects of weather in a reactive, rather than proactive manner.”

Tip: Brighten up your store to reduce weather-related negativity (yes, there’s science behind it!)

The research: A 1994 study published in the International Journal of Marketing tested the effects of soft versus bright lighting in a wine store. The researchers found that the brighter the light in the store, the more likely customers were to examine and handle the wine, especially wine at eye level. “Retail stores could selectively increase lighting levels on bad weather days in order to reduce negative feelings, which, in turn, should help increase sales,” advised “The effect of weather” study mentioned above.

The takeaway: Brighter light can have a powerful effect on reducing negative customer mood on an overcast day. Try tweaking your in-store lighting when inclement weather is predicted, whether by moving the dimmer switch up, or by bringing in lamps and spotlights from home and artfully placing them to highlight darker displays, inviting customers to interact with your products.

Small business owners can be disproportionately affected by weather volatility because of the resources at their disposal — but also have the flexibility to adapt quickly to sudden changes that larger brands can’t pull off as deftly.

That’s especially necessary given that there is also a direct correlation between fluctuations in weather and store traffic, according to NRF. Bob Phibbs shared this tip for how to make the most of weather-impacted slower days on the Retail Doctor blog:

“The key is to leverage your short-term (5-7-day) local forecast to predict foot traffic and adjust weekly schedules as needed. […] When shoppers are few, allocate staff to weather-safety tasks such as clearing the parking lot and walkways, mopping wet entrances, or rearranging displays with weather-related merchandise.”

The easiest way to get started with being proactive around weather changes? Make it a habit to pay very close attention to the forecast, recommends Megan C. George, owner of The ZEN Succulent plant shop in Durham, N.C. Since her store is in an area of the US South that doesn’t usually experience snow, she has to be on high alert during colder months.

“Make your decision to open or close well ahead of the first snowflake,” advises George. “We are avid forecast watchers during the winter weather. Whenever snow is listed consistently as coming down [during] store hours, we decide immediately to close on those dates and inform our customers soon after [via] social media sites, voicemail and [our] website. This allows our staff to be prepared, as well as customers have time to pick up any goods before the weather hits.”


Fellow N.C. retailer Port of Raleigh also employs social media as a tool when dealing with inclement weather.

“Being in a region where weather can be somewhat unpredictable with rain showers or spikes in heat, I prepare by leaving flexibility in our marketing using Instagram Stories,” shares owner Ana Maria Muñoz. “It’s easy to spontaneously share products that’ll help make a rainy or extra hot day better. Having an online store also helps because you can direct people there if you know that few people will make it out of their house that day.”

Tip: Measure foot traffic trends alongside tracking weather data

The research: 45 percent of respondents stated they will not go shopping when snowing, 37 percent of respondents will not go shopping when raining, 35 percent will not go shopping in severe cold and 30 percent will not go shopping in excessive heat (Kirk, 2005). Rain has negative impact on shopping center attendance (Parsons, 2001).

The takeaway: Check your revenue alongside weather data to understand why certain how weather impacts your traffic and sales, and plan staffing and marketing with those trends on hand. Tools like Dor do this automatically for you and create reports that allow you to easily take action. You can also track this data manually with pen and paper or a spreadsheet. Here’s a helpful template to get started.

Natural disasters

When fires ravaged California’s Napa Valley region last fall, locals turned to Bay Area retailer Cole Hardware to get help managing the poor air quality.

“We stocked up on face masks and Vogmasks,” recalls Julia Strzesieski at Cole. “Our stores were getting hundreds of calls and texts during that time, so we started posting live updates on Facebook and Twitter in order to keep people posted when we were receiving a shipment. The masks would sell out within minutes of getting them in. We limited the number that people could purchase so that we could try to get a couple for as many folks as possible.”

Natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes and earthquakes can be a retailer’s worst nightmare — with 2017’s Hurricanes Harvey and Irma clocking in at a devastating estimated $1 billion and $2.8 billion impact in retail sales respectively, the idea of recovering after weather-related damage to your store and your sales can seem overwhelming. Disasters are out of your control, but the prep you can put in to respond is. Here’s how to take action:

  1. Make a safety plan for you and your staff. Revisit your training manual and your safety policies for communication and closing the store in case of emergency. Plan a training event to make sure your staff is prepared for weather-related events and other emergencies that may occur in your area. Check out this OSHA guide for emergency workplace evacuations to get started.
  2. Get covered. On top of your business insurance, you may qualify for additional assistance after a natural disaster. You can check here. You can also apply for loans for damage not covered by your insurance through the Small Business Administration.
  3. Plan to meet community needs during a disaster. Reuters reported different levels of sales increases and decreases after Hurricane Harvey depending on the type of store vertical. Like Cole Hardware, you may be able to order merchandise that meets a pressing need in your community, or you could even creatively use your space like “Mattress Mack” did in Houston, using his stores to shelter hurricane victims.

Construction

On a stretch of city block in downtown Durham, NC, half of the street has been blocked off by construction on a nearby development. That’s posed a challenge to Empower Dance Studio, part dance space and part boutique, but owner Nicole Oxendine has been able to market around the construction.

“Despite the construction on our street, Empower drives most of our business through web and social media marketing,” wrote Oxendine. “We used citywide events such as Third Friday to drive traffic, using chalk on the sidewalk and sandwich boards to direct people to our business.”

Oftentimes, construction projects hurt retailers’ customer flow, especially when projects run longer than planned, siphoning away crucial foot traffic from businesses in the affected area. In Seattle’s historic Central District, businesses were disproportionately impacted by a construction project, so owners banded together to pressure their city council to provide $650,000 in mitigation funds for their lost business.

Construction mitigation programs (CMPs) depend on the nature of the project and are scarcely implemented, according to Scott Beyer in Governing.com: “Designed by cities to help businesses through the public construction process, CMPs are fairly rare and seldom discussed. […] If [business owners] knew that plans existed on their behalf, they might be more likely to offer support, creating an alliance between two groups — businesspeople and public officials — who recognize the value of infrastructure.”

If you think an upcoming or current construction project is affecting your business negatively, you may want to explore the option of championing a CMP in your community. Here are some ways to start the conversation:

  • Plan a meeting with other retailers in your area to discuss how the construction project has affected your sales and traffic, and invite local media
  • Read up on the academic research available on how CMPs can help local businesses
  • Check your local government website for city council meetings and open comment periods to share your concerns
  • Write to your city-level representative or ask to meet with them

If advocating for a CMP isn’t a viable option, you can still plan to recover lost revenue due to construction. Susan Bulgrin, a restaurant owner in Madison, Wisconsin, put together a “Road Construction Survival Guide” for businesses, including examples of how owners banded together to create awareness campaigns for blocked-off businesses, suggestions for how to reduce operational spend to mitigate loss, and tips for how to survive once construction begins.

The takeaway

Even when downtown construction projects block off your street or when the rain simply won’t go away, you have plenty of power over how your store is equipped to respond when external events impact your business by being data-driven and community-minded.

Recommended further reading

Autho bio

 Joanna Rutter is a retail tech writer and marketing specialist at Dor, a foot traffic analytics solution for organizations of all sizes. Read more of her work at blog.getdor.com.