Winter storms boost mobile commerce

          Laura Heller

Weather has long been blamed for bad or inconsistent retail sales, but the growth of online and mobile commerce has also helped to minimize the damage done by damaging storms.

One of the earliest indications of this came in 2012 when a storm threatened to cancel Halloween. The Frankenstorm, as it was called, did put a dent into holiday sales and certainly a left a number of disappointed kids in its wake, but it didn't ruin the quarter for most retailers.

Then came Superstorm Sandy. This was a truly powerful weather event, one that should have done a good deal of damage to retail sales. On the contrary, Sandy churned up positive sales for the home improvement industry immediately following the event, and continued to do so for many months afterward. Beyond the obvious—that damage to homes equals home repairs—there was another reason: the rise of e-commerce.

Retailers have gotten better at managing bad weather thanks in no small part to new technology that enables better supply-chain management. Omnichannel efforts have allowed retailers to shift inventory more quickly and make better use of available resources.

And some of those resources are being allocated to meeting the increased demand from online orders. Shoppers may be forced to stay home, but that doesn't mean they can't still shop.

In fact, shopping may well be a cure for cabin fever. Or, at the the very least, a way to pass the time.

Such was the case during these February storms. IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark data is showing a new trend the company is calling "climate commerce" as online shopping coming from the Northeast increased more than 20 percent during the two major storms that hit on February 2 and 9.

On February 2, the Northeast accounted for 24.6 percent of all online sales in the U.S., an increase of 24.9 percent from January 26, the last non-snow Monday. And on February 9, the same region accounted for 24.2 percent of all U.S. sales, an increase of 22.8 percent from January 26.

Tablets and smartphones played a role here as shoppers turned to mobile devices to get their shopping done during bad weather. On February 2, "tablets accounted for 11.2 percent of all online sales, an increase of more than 15 percent from January 26," according to IBM. And on February 9, "mobile accounted for just over 20 percent of all online sales, an increase of nearly 20 percent from January 26."

Unfortunately, the online boost is only good for large national or regional chains. Because while the internet is a great leveler in many regards, it has not been particularly kind to independent retailers. This is one area where being local or a specialist means an overreliance on foot traffic.

The polar vortex that gripped much of the Midwest last winter did some real damage to many local retailers. One well-regarded and highly successful shop in my Chicago neighborhood said it took months to recover from January and February's long stretch of sub-zero temperatures. These retailers expect and plan for a winter slowdown, but the long, drawn-out and cruel weather really wreaked havoc with their planograms.

At least one of these retailers never recovered and closed before Thanksgiving.

If there's a lesson here, it's to invest in omnichannel. Make mobile a key part of any strategy, and don't wait. Those who have invested early in mobile are there reaping the benefits right now. Those who haven't are still digging out of their proverbial snowstorm. –Laura