Which Retailers Will Hurricane Irene Help, and Which Will It Hurt?

Storm Expected to Buoy Sales of Emergency Supplies at Walmart, Home Depot but Threaten Back-to-School Sales

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With Hurricane Irene predicted to wreak havoc up and down the East Coast, home improvement and mass retailers are scrambling to serve customers in search of batteries, bottled water and plywood. But as consumers in the region focus on the storm, apparel and office-supply retailers could miss out on all-important back-to-school sales.

Home Depot, Lowe 's and Walmart locations from North Carolina to New Jersey are doing a brisk business, as consumers prepare for a hurricane that is being called historic. Walmart announced extended hours at some stores in advance of the storm, while Home Depot said its emergency response teams have been activated and more than 300 trucks are on the road to assist with store replenishment. A Home Depot spokeswoman said the retailer is also preparing to aid consumers after the storm, stocking trash bags, chainsaws and sump pumps, for example.

Those same retailers are also utilizing a variety of outlets to communicate with consumers. Twitter, for one, has been a popular way to communicate storm information. Walmart linked to a checklist of items consumers should have on hand, and Home Depot has been tweeting "Hurricane Prep Tips."

Acknowledging the thirst for hurricane-related stories, Lowe's distributed a press release notifying media that all store managers are prepared to field media inquiries. The release said that spokespeople were available for in-store and in-studio interviews to provide tips and demonstrations on hurricane prep, as well as hurricane recovery and repair.

Jean Niemi, a Home Depot spokeswoman, said the retailer has posted a detailed how-to guide for homeowners preparing for the hurricane, pointing out that many haven't been in this situation for decades. Home Depot's blog, The Apron, has been updated to reflect information related to Hurricane Irene. And Ms. Niemi said that the retailer is leveraging real-time information from Twitter and Foursquare check-ins to share insights with stores about the supplies customers are searching for.

But while Irene could temporarily buoy sales for some retailers, traditional back-to-school retailers such as Macy's , JC Penney and Staples could see sales dwindle this weekend thanks to inclement weather. Many schools in the Northeast will be back in session just after Labor Day, making this weekend one of only two remaining before school starts.

Already retailers across parts of North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia are shuttering their doors as officials call for evacuations. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to announce Saturday morning whether some residents of New York City need to evacuate.

Any impact from Irene will be evident when retailers report August sales at stores open at least a year next Thursday. Experts are estimating the storm could cause upward of $20 billion in economic losses.

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