By Guest Contributor Jim N R Dale
The absolute necessities of the weather-sensitive retail sector, which accounts for about 70% of the purchases we might make in any given year.
There are other retail areas that are arguably even more prone to weather impacts. And, unlike basic consumption items and clothing, in these, we tend to have more of a take-it- or leave-it option, which creates greater susceptibility to the weather’s many whims.
We are by and large creatures of comfort, and when the weather turns in any way negative or hostile, we tend to stay put. We’re content to sit out the horribleness rather than face it down. Nowadays, from a retail perspective, that means we press plenty of buttons and ask companies to deliver stuff to our doorstep instead of driving, taking public transport or walking to the shop. Somewhat akin to Covid-19 experiences, but obviously to a lesser degree, online retail, online retail sales and TV programming receive a major boost during adverse weather, while in-person footfall attendance declines commensurately with the severity of the weather.
Weather affects the norm
I recall an icy Friday evening in the winter of 2018, when the ‘Beast from the East’ had made its mark during the day, laying down a few inches of snow around the area where I live. Not the kind of snow that would normally make the news or disrupt traffic, but certainly enough to play on minds and increase fiddling with worry beads. Even though no more snow was forecast for that evening, and roads were generally passable, the fear and hesitation those few inches of white stuff created were enough to turn nearby town centres into scenes from a post-Armageddon sci-fi thriller: frigid, empty and lifeless.
Well, almost. There were a few ‘lost souls’ out there, including my family and me, who drove ever so easily to a French restaurant some three miles away, where we were greeted by a skeleton staff and a ghost-like atmosphere. And remember, this was a usually busy Friday evening in what is normally a lively, bustling restaurant.
You see, weather impact might not be that apparent or disabling, but a taste of it – or even the threat of it – can be enough to severely affect the norm. That is pivotal, not only for restaurants but for a whole host of mainly leisure-oriented venues, such as cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, bowling alleys and sporting facilities. Indeed, walk along a high street or into a shopping centre, pick any outlet, and you’ll observe a measurable effect. The greater the weather extreme, the greater the impact, and the drop-in footfall may also have staffing implications. Indeed, you may like to view an extreme of weather a little like a small-time passing virus!
You might not think that uncommonly hot days when the mercury rises in tandem with blood pressure, would have an equally adverse impact, but you’d be mistaken. Heat, and particularly heat with high humidity, leads to a search for comfort and pleasure, which are not so easily found in town or city centres beyond the air-conditioned outlets.
Incidentally, Europe comes in a poor third compared to the US and developed Asia when it comes to the prevalence of air conditioning. So, for some, finding the comfort of air-conditioned outlets can be a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. Instead, when the heat index climbs, people head for the beaches, parks, rivers, lakes and swimming pools.
Weather loser, weather winner
Where there is a weather loser there’s a weather winner – a phrase I will return to again and again. During days of high heat, cooling breezes and even cooler stretches of water attract humans like bees to a honeypot. In that I have first-hand, recent experience.
Unless the record has been beaten again since this book was published, on 29 July 2019 the UK hit its highest-ever recorded temperature: 38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 Fahrenheit). At the time, I was sitting in the café of my local park, within a tree-lined leisure complex, complete with a gym and outdoor swimming pools. While I was there the gym remained more or less empty, but the queues for the swimming pool were out the door and into the middle of the park. It was even necessary for the staff to provide water for those biding their time, and wilting, in the unprecedented heat.
Inside the café, cold drinks and ice cream were consumed to the point of running out, with several hours of open time still to go. Bottom line: all of these water-seeking refugees were not in the town centre, nor were they in the cinemas, furniture stores, computer outlets or DIY centres that are replicated in every village, town and city. Populations were driven in herds to refreshing water sources, not unlike thirsty wildebeest in the middle of an African dry season.
It was, in short, bonanza time for selected retailers of cooling comfort … and a barren, unforgiving desert for most others.
That summer, the oldest holiday tour operator in the UK fell afoul of the heat as the British flocked to British beaches, instead of foreign ones. That may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as long-term mismanagement and Brexit uncertainties were blamed for the company’s fall into receivership. Nonetheless, the tour company could fairly be called a weather loser.
Capturing the moment
Speaking of hot weather, let’s turn to a classic situation where hay may be made by the baleful – that is when a heatwave ends with a literal bang. You can guess the scenario: a big city centre in a temperate climate zone, 20 days of blistering sunshine and outlandish media hype, and then the epic thunderstorm arrives.
Who could possibly be the weather winner in that situation? Well, it’s the guy who sought out, noted and trusted a reliable weather forecast in the days before and bought a crate of umbrellas at wholesale. The guy who then sold them at a premium to those poor drenched individuals, scurrying from door to door, who hadn’t sorted or noted or trusted anything, or perhaps chose the wrong forecast to rely upon.
There are of course countless examples of ‘capturing the moment’ at the top of the retail weather-impact iceberg. But like every iceberg, the bulk of the script lies under the waterline. If you sell something, think for a minute of how every type of weather may or may not lean heavily upon your business. The impacts may shift like the blowing sands of the Kalahari, but there are few, if any, businesses that can claim to be totally weather resistant.
Take undertakers, for example. The business of human burial is a form of retail, but hardly something we think about very often. It certainly doesn’t spring to mind as clinging to the top of that weather-impact iceberg. But the next time you chat with an undertaker, ask whether weather materially impacts their business. The answer will be a resounding yes, or at least it should be. Just go back to the chapter on health and wellbeing to see that fatalities during weather extremes can climb to the top of that iceberg faster than a penguin!
Then there are hairdressers. Again, not the most obvious of weather-impacted merchants, but as the air turns colder, we tend to wear our hair longer, as a way of keeping our head and neck warm. Hot weather makes us want to reduce our hair mass for reasons of comfort. September is actually one of the most popular months for going to the hairdresser, though not quite as popular as December, when people want to get ready for Christmas. That’s in part due to summer (especially for women) being a time of throwing your hair up and embracing a more natural beach vibe, as the sun, heat and humidity make your tresses difficult to maintain. Once the cool of early autumn arrives, women flock to the salon to restyle their hair and embrace a more maintained look. There’s certainly method to all this madness.
And, of course, there are times when hostile weather makes for panic buying of certain basic ‘survival items.’ Hurricanes or typhoons can see supermarkets and DIY stores stripped of items such as tea, coffee, sugar, bread, tins of beans, wooden boarding, torches, candles and generators. Petrol stations do big business at these times too, not only in increased fuel sales for those wishing to escape, but as an open-all-hours convenience store for those opting to stay put.
The list goes on and on, but it’s fair to say that every item and every retail operation has its time, its place and its value commensurate with the antics of Mother Nature.
All businesses should factor in weather
CEOs, business owners, operations professionals and demand managers, you know your business, and I probably don’t. But I do know about the immense impact weather can have, and what counts … and with all due respect, you might not, or at least not have the full story. All businesses, whether retail or not, should factor in weather, alongside every other business-critical equation.
So, be mindful of where you source your weather information. Learn to recognize precisely what parts of the business can be impacted by which types of weather, and when, by observing and/or measuring it. Where possible, be fleet of foot and diversify – it’s not by accident that chocolate bar manufacturers diversified into chocolate ice cream as global temperatures started their steep rise during the 1990s. And finally, build in contingencies for all types of weather, particularly those ever-increasing extremes.
Become weather-impact savvy, learn to become a weather winner, and donate the loser’s medal to your competitors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim N R Dale is the founder and consultant meteorologist at the British Weather Services – the UK’s leading independent weather operate. Jim is British and resides in the UK.
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LEARN MORE ABOUT WEATHER OR NOT
The impact of the weather is often taken for granted and sometimes completely ignored. Weather in all forms is a maker and breaker of both business and personal fortunes, especially when it reaches extremes. The weather we experience crucially dictates almost every aspect of our lives. It directs what we do and when we do it, from what we eat and drink, to the clothes we wear, and it even governs our health and behaviour.
In this entertaining and informative book, global expert meteorologist and weather authority, Jim N R Dale, shares his experiences and advises how you and your business could truly become weather savvy. Weather impact is an all-consuming phenomenon, and, with the rise of climate change, there is no better time to tune into one of the most important aspects of our lives. Certainly, a book for a rainy day!
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