Retail IT Lessons In The Path Of Sandy

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As Superstorm Sandy blew its devastating winds through much of the Eastern U.S. starting on Halloween, retailers had to deal with it just like everyone else. But few seemed to have anticipated the more than eight days of outages—some outages continue, pushing past 10 days—along with the gas shortages, closed roads, lack of food and water, plus the dead phone lines, lack of Internet broadband access and dead cell towers.

Stores in this area of New Jersey—StorefrontBacktalk's main office is in the heart of Sandy's path—are used to outages of a few hours and maybe, during severe situations, maybe one day. The bad news: With global weirding (the term for the many strange weather patterns caused by global warming), there's a fine chance these week-plus outages may be something that has to be planned for. With that in mind, let's look at what some of the chains discovered when they could only exist via emergency generator.

Note: You really don't want your associates repeatedly having to go out and bring back gallons of gasoline to power an emergency generator, especially when shortages and rationing are likely, making the fuel expensive and potentially unobtainable. Strongly try and argue for natural gas, which is fueled continuously via safer underground pipes. It's not an IT issue, but it's worth noting.

When Best Buy went on emergency generators, it kept the lights on and the POS functioning, but not the network. That means it could process credit-card transactions, but not debit. Giftcards, returns, product lookups and special orders were all either impossible or severely limited. What if this outage was caused not by a one-time hurricane but by a simple blizzard? Perhaps in the middle of December? Want to give up returns, special orders and all debit-card transactions for eight days in the middle of the holiday rush?

The local Target was able to handle some debit-card transactions, but it couldn't put out all displays and related activities. Why? When various circuits were given to the emergency generator, the backroom/stockroom wasn't on the list. It was pitch back in there, so nobody could get stuff out.

Wait a second, I asked. You're Target. Couldn't someone just get some flashlights from your aisles, some batteries from your aisles and go work in the stockroom? No. Apparently, the paperwork and permissions required to use stocked products is more daunting than the decision that marketing displays could wait until the power was fully restored.

By the way, these aren't solely efforts to make a buck. A lot of people in this area needed to buy things from local retailers to repair damage and to keep their families warm and alive during 20-degree nights, so these restrictions were serious.

In disaster-recovery plans, have you sketched out which rooms will need power for an extended outage? Provided for power for the networks? Of course, if the other end of the network is down, a store's generator can't make a dead connection come alive.

What about auxiliary network access? When our network went down, we used tethered iPhones to get by—albeit very slowly. Having backup arrangements with multiple telecom players is critical. You can't know which ones will go down, but you're in a much better position if you have prior arrangements with multiple.

Starbucks in the region acted as small emergency shelters, providing—sometimes—Wi-Fi access along with a warm place to sit and coffee to function. But when many Starbucks had to shut down due to power outages, the Web site continued to broadcast those locations as open. One regional manager had the updated lists of which stores were open, which were closed, what new emergency hours were and which locations had functioning Wi-Fi. Remember that phone lines were out for huge areas, so phoning a store wouldn't help. A non-answered phone might mean a closed store or merely one with no phone service.

When asked why such information wasn't given to corporate for posting on the site (this manager had E-mail access, as we were communicating via E-mail), he said: "It is impossible to update the Web site as hundreds of stores in the northeast are opening sporadically as power is restored."

Truth be told, that's not at all impossible. He was sharing with me those exact details for his extensive region. Why couldn't it have been sent to someone in E-Commerce? Customers would understand if the information was a few hours old, but they would greatly appreciate the effort. Yes, that would be a lot of business during the storm. And stores full of very appreciative customers. That generates the type of loyalty that no promotion can buy.