Amid Polar Vortex's Icy Havoc, Some Products in Hot Demand

Home-Meal Delivery, eBay Now Among Likely Winners, Though Airlines Out In Cold

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The "polar vortex" that created some of the lowest temperatures in 20 years for much of the U.S. is dealing a bitter blow to some marketers, but presenting new opportunities to others as a post-holiday week turned into an extended bout of cabin fever.

Walmart online snow-tire ad.
Walmart online snow-tire ad. Credit: Walmart

Among the expected winners – marketers of road salt, wiper fluid and space heaters – along with e-commerce players, particularly those offering same-day delivery such as eBay Now or food-delivery service Seamless. Among the losers are just about any retailer or restaurant relying on people leaving their homes, unless they happened to be in airports.

As of mid-Tuesday, weather had resulted in cancellation of more than 11,000 U.S. flights since Sunday and delays of another 23,000, according to JetBlue shut down service to four of the busiest airports in the country late Monday, including the three major New York airports and Boston Logan International.

So far, however, JetBlue and others appeared to avoid major PR crises that had dogged some past weather events, even though they still have the big task of clearing airports crowded with hundreds of thousands of stranded travelers.

Chicago agencies DDB, Leo Burnett and DraftFCB either closed or advised people to stay home amid wind chills of 40 below zero or more in Chicago on Monday though most returned to business as usual on Tuesday.

Retailers, many of whom are subscribers to weather forecaster Planalytics, appeared fairly well prepared. Planalytics had forecast the bout of cold and snowy weather more than two weeks out, and beyond that had advised that this winter was likely to be tougher than last year's relatively mild one, said Evan Gold, senior VP-client service.


Lowe's began planning for winter weather needs in July and has teams to monitor weather on a monthly or even daily basis, a spokeswoman said in an e-mail, and can respond with emergency supplies in as little as a day. The home-improvement retailer is seeing strong demand for ice melt, pipe insulation, space heaters and generators, she said.

Walmart stores in such Midwestern cities as Cincinnati had several pallet-size displays of space heaters that were well picked over by Monday. A Sears spokeswoman said the cold weather is driving people to buy outerwear, fleece and cold-weather accessories, particularly in the Central and Eastern regions.

Consumer Edge Research analyst Stacie Rabinowitz said the cold snap comes at a time many retailers have their winter gear on clearance. But she said retailers who can adapt quickly enough to scrap plans for "setting resort season and clearing out coats" will fare best, listing Macy's and T.J. Maxx among retailers best at adapting to the weather.

Gift cards
Scott Bernhardt, president of Planalytics, said people are in many cases just staying at home ordering items online or via mobile devices, with online activation of holiday gift cards up as people use their unscheduled time at home to shop.

Standalone restaurants stand to be among the most negatively affected, he said. Longer-term, he said the higher-than-usual heating bills that will be arriving next month are likely to hurt President's Day sales.

Ms. Rabinowitz has heard anecdotal reports of lengthy wait times to make orders at food-delivery service Seamless.

A spokeswoman for Seamless and its sibling GrubHub declined to get into specifics about order spikes or delivery conditions, but said yesterday: "Across the board, restaurants and drivers are dealing with an influx of orders," and that both services had increased staffing in customer-service departments "to ensure that we're more than prepared."

No excuses for weather
She added that online and social-media ordering options bypass the need for calling or call wait times, and that while some restaurants had closed because of the weather, "the vast majority" are open and delivering. She urged diners to be prepared for longer delivery times in bad weather and to tip delivery drivers well for braving extreme temperatures.

The polar vortex could prove a long-term boon to same-day delivery services that get customers for the first time because of the weather, Ms. Rabinowitz said. "You build relationships with retailers the most in times of crisis," she said. "People sure do remember when their space heater was broken and eBay Now brought them one within an hour."

Any retailer looking for sympathy from Wall Street for weather-related troubles, however, has an uphill battle against the usual skepticism. "A lot more poor performance will probably be attributed to bad weather," she said, "than bad weather actually accounts for."

Contributing: Meredith Berg, Maureen Morrison, E.J. Schultz

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