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The "Bomb Cyclone" Caused A Spike In Shopping, And The Weather Forecasters Saw It Coming

Bad weather can be disastrous for retailers, but a small industry of meteorologists and weather data analysts are dedicated to making sure that cozy sweater is in stock and gets to you before the bomb cyclone hits.

Posted on January 5, 2018, at 5:08 p.m. ET

Getty Images/Spencer Platt

As the bomb cyclone approached the Northeast this week and people frantically prepped for the storm, businesses were getting ready to meet the surge in demand with the help of weather data analysts.

Planalytics, a business weather intelligence company that works with retailers like Rite Aid and Ace Hardware, estimates that, based on the weather, demand for seasonal apparel increased dramatically this week across the country. Demand for boots in the Northeast was up 32%, and up 19% across the US; demand for thermals shot up 61% in the Northeast and 34% across the US; and hats, gloves, and scarves rose by 65% for the region and 44% across the US.

Retailers work with such companies to prepare for the rush of customers extreme weather can bring. Weather Trends International, a weather data and analysis company that works with retailers like Kohl’s, estimates purchases of electric blankets (which go up 24% for every 1-degree decrease in temperature) will see a 480% increase in sales this week compared to the same period in 2017; coat sales (which rise 5% per 1-degree temperature decrease) will double; and sales of sweaters and boots (which go up 5% for every degree) will shoot up by 60%.

“Retailers have to have a plan in place so they can execute,” said Evan Gold, Planalytics’ executive vice president of global services, to BuzzFeed News. “Those large-scale retailers do a good job. You can’t control the weather that happens, but you can control how you proactively put plans in place.”

A retailer’s buying season comes months before any shopper thinks about what they might need for the winter. It’s a delicate art of business to predict demand, supply , and — the weather.

“When you really think about what is driving retail sales, a big portion of that is what’s happening outside,” Paul Walsh, IBM’s director of weather strategy, told BuzzFeed News. “So weather is a huge impact on retail and has been forever.”

Walsh is one of 160 meteorologists working for IBM, which owns the Weather Company, to analyze and forecast the weather.

Increasingly, Walsh’s job is focused on how forecasts will affect retail sales as people frequently turn to their smartphones for the weather forecast. That process has become “jacked up on steroids,” said Walsh, as people also share their weather experiences on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, which may lead people to shop ahead of a storm, or plan on staying inside and shopping online, or buy movies on demand from a video-streaming service.

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“The only reason people check the weather forecast is because you’re planning your life, what you’re going to buy, where you’re going to go, and where you’re going to spend your time,” said Walsh. “When you overlay the weather forecast on that, you can get a predictive sense for what people are going to be wanting and needing. You have to make sure you’re going to have enough of it.”

Add in social media and “all of a sudden these weather events become really significant drivers of retail sales before storm hits,” he said.

Bill Kirk, CEO of Weather Trends International, told BuzzFeed News that this year’s frigid winter has him bullish on winter retail sales. The company even tries to prepare annual weather outlooks for the year ahead.

“The cold snap at the beginning of the quarter is important because it drives sales,” he said. “They’re selling that at full price so it helps the supply chain.”

While the warm winter of 2016 led retailers to dramatically mark down coats, sweaters, and scarves, Kirk said the fall and winter of 2017 and 2018 will be exceptional for retail and seasonal merchandise sales. For the eastern half of the country, the November-through-January period so far has been the coldest and snowiest in seven years, which allows stores to sell their winter wear at full price.

The forecast for spring shopping, however, isn’t as optimistic. The winter’s freezing temperatures, which are expected to last through the early spring, may not bode well for sales. “Q4 is extremely strong, but Q1 is going to stink it up,” said Kirk.

While retailers work with companies like Kirk’s, shipping companies like UPS have their own in-house teams of meteorologists dedicated to making sure purchases get to people on time.

Randy Baker, a UPS meteorologist, told BuzzFeed News that having an on-staff weatherman is critical for making sure planes can take off in freezing temperatures on time.

“With a thunderstorm hitting, and you’re trying to land 100 aircraft in two and a half hours, that’s a huge operational impact,” said Baker. “We try to fine tune that timing. We plan the arrival time so there is minimal disruption.”

Baker’s team is staffed 24 hours a day during the work week and they’re on call during the weekends. During Thursday’s storm, Baker was briefing UPS teams on the East Coast every six hours about how the storm was progressing.

“It’s one of those things where people don’t think about what we do until a storm hits,” he said. “But we’re constantly looking at operations throughout the globe.”

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