It's the winter that never came.
Across most of the country, a lack of snow and frigid air has left marketers in the lurch. Winter boots and snow shovels are languishing on store shelves while a brisk business is done in live plants and lightweight jackets. It was the fourth-warmest December-through-January period on record, with snowfall 91% below normal last month.
"It's been an amazing winter, with virtually no snow," said Paul Walsh, VP-weather analytics at The Weather Channel. "That follows last year's winter, when we had some areas that had the coldest winter in 100 years. There are big implications from a year-over-year comparison."
Mr. Walsh, once a meteorologist for the Air Force, said most forecasters predicted a milder winter, though they didn't expect it to be this warm for this long. As one forecaster put it, the season was an "epic dud."
With March approaching, industry experts say that even if a major snowstorm or cold temperatures do finally arrive, consumers will postpone winter purchases until next year.
"The reality is that we are "buy-now, use-now' consumers," Mr. Walsh said. "It's pretty much over. When it comes to weather and driving demand, timing is everything. ... By the time you get to President's Day, it's all about spring."
While most retailers have yet to report fourth-quarter results, those who have are already citing the necessity of aggressive markdowns to clear winter merchandise. Teen clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch told investors that big bets on cold-weather gear and fur-lined garments didn't pay off thanks to the warm weather. And retailers of all stripes reported sluggish sales of cold-weather merchandise as early as December.
"If you planned outerwear up after last year, you're crazy," said Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, a business weather-intelligence firm. "Some [marketers] were more prepared than others. But in all candor, it's very difficult to plan a business down."
But plenty of businesses were down this year. Planalytics reported weather-driven demand for electric blankets and ice melt was down in January, while demand for hot cereal, portable heaters and snow shovels was down in December. Likewise, consumers aren't flocking to The Weather Channel properties in the same numbers they were a year ago, said spokesman David Blumenthal. Viewership soared as the mercury dropped last January, and Weather.com saw record visits.
"It's a tough comparison, because [last year] was so out of the ordinary," Mr. Blumenthal said.
Campbell Soup Co.said U.S. soup sales fell 2% in the quarter ending Jan. 29, with execs noting the warmer weather had "some impact."
"We're absolute advocates of global cooling," joked CEO Denise Morrison. "We acknowledge the fact that the weather was warmer. But we also sell a lot of soup in warm weather climates. So we've got to deal with that . And we are. I think where we're going, particularly with our soup business, is we want to increase usage of the product in some "positive need states," not necessarily the negative ones, like when people are sick or when they're cold. So we're not going to use weather as an excuse."
And, in fact, it looks like fewer people need chicken soup. Cold and flu product sales have also been weak, sending U.S. facial-tissue volume down almost 10% in the fourth quarter vs. a year ago. And the news was even worse for the four weeks ended Jan. 22 , with facial-tissue volume down 12.5% according to SymphonyIRI. Kimberly-Clark Corp., marketer of Kleenex, blamed a slow start to the season in part for an unspecified double-digit decline in North American facial-tissue volume. The SymphonyIRI data peg the volume decline for Kleenex at 21% in the fourth quarter.
Likewise, volume for cough syrup was down 8.5% in the fourth quarter. And earlier this month, Walgreen's reported it had administered 5.5 million flu shots compared with 6.3 million last year. It also cited lower incidences of flu for a decline in prescriptions filled by consumers.
But there have been some warm-weather winners. Consumers haven't been stuck at home and have been more likely to frequent malls, movie theaters, bars and restaurants.
Beer marketers, for example, root for mild temperatures because people tend to go out drinking more often. "We did have good weather, no question about it, [and] we're delighted for that ," MillerCoors CEO Tom Long told Wall Street analysts last week.
Outdoor activities from painting and gardening to hiking and running have also been popular, thanks to the unseasonable winter. Matthieu McAuliffe, head of industry-retail at Google, said searches for outdoor activities and yard maintenance are already starting to pick up, a couple of weeks earlier than is typical. For example, Home Depot is already promoting live plants and seeing brisk sales in Texas, Mr. Bernhardt pointed out. And with consumers having potentially saved money allocated for snow gear, retailers could be poised for a strong spring season.
"While certain sectors are hurting, on a macro level it's good for our economy that it's been so mild," Mr. Walsh said. "There's a lot more opportunity to get out and swing hammers, so it's a tailwind for employment. Arguably it's good for home sales, with consumers spending fewer days inside hibernating. And municipalities don't have to spend all that money for over time for snow removal."