Cold freeze warms up winter sales

Marketers took advantage of last week's Arctic temps to sell goods

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The polar vortex, which plunged parts of the country, including Chicago (pictured above) into bitterly frigid temperatures, boosted retail sales of parkas, batteries, portable heaters and other cold-weather gear.
The polar vortex, which plunged parts of the country, including Chicago (pictured above) into bitterly frigid temperatures, boosted retail sales of parkas, batteries, portable heaters and other cold-weather gear. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

An email from retailer Anthropologie last week told consumers, "Cold hands, warm heart" as it advertised 50 percent discounts on cozy styles. Similarly, Patagonia proclaimed, "For whatever winter throws your way" as it pushed "styles to keep out the cold," such as fleece and down parkas.

It seemed as if all marketers wanted to cash in on a piece of the polar vortex—and with good reason. Last week's Arctic blast, in which temperatures reached record lows of nearly 50 degrees below zero in many parts of the Midwest and plummeted to a deep freeze in the Northeast as well, gave retailers an opportunity to get rid of excess cold-weather inventory and market their home-improvement wares.

And while most brands used last week's frigid temperatures to push relevant products, others just hopped on the cold train as a way to sell more goods—whether it made sense or not. Furniture brand West Elm's email read, "It's cold out there! Save BIG on lighting + more."

"The winners are anything that's need-based," says Evan Gold, executive VP of global partnerships and alliances at Planalytics, which measures the impact of weather on business. He notes that apparel like jackets, boots and gloves, along with home products such as portable heaters, pipe insulation and batteries, most likely were in greater demand. Lowe's, which recently debuted a new home
expert–focused marketing campaign, highlighted Craftsman batteries for power tools on its site last week.

Retailers were already poised for a healthy winter. The government shutdown delayed final tallies on holiday spending by the U.S. Department of Commerce, but the National Retail Federation is predicting they will show a 4.8 percent rise to $720.9 billion. That's on top of a strong November, during which retail sales increased 5 percent from last year—a favorable start to the season.

During the holidays, most marketers reported positive same-store sales, a common metric of a retailer's health, which measures sales at stores open more than a year. Target led the pack with a 5.7 percent gain, though others, such as Macy's and Kohl's, saw more modest increases.

Yet the polar vortex didn't mean good news for all retailers. Planalytics estimates a net-negative national impact of as much as $500 million due to a decline in restaurant sales. Gold notes that such an impact is minor and was minimized because the Arctic temperatures occurred mid-week, a time when most consumers are not shopping or going out, and because it hit in late January, typically a slow spending period.

"These are the lowest volume days of the retail year," says Gold.

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