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Storm shows retailers rely on brick and mortar despite technology

Michael Reynolds / EPA

A shopper looks at mostly empty shelves in the water section of a Target store ahead of Hurricane Sandy in Alexandria, Va., Oct. 29, 2012.

Hurricane Sandy is serving as a reminder that while Americans love the convenience of buying things with the click of a mouse, when disaster strikes they still rely on the physical store.

“A storm is where you almost kind of kick back to old school,” said Brian Sozzi, a retail industry analyst and editor of Decoding Wall St., a newsletter.

That could be good news for chains like Wal-Mart and Target, who in recent years have faced fierce competition from aggressive online-only retailers such as Amazon.com. That’s led to speculation that the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar strategy was becoming obsolete.

“Everyone’s saying that brick-and-mortar retailing is dead. All you need to do is go to Amazon right now and type in ‘hurricane preparation’ and nothing comes up,” Sozzi noted.

(In fact, a search for that phrase on Amazon.com resulted in listings for Season One of the television show “Dawson’s Creek,” the book “Hurricane Punch” and a video called “Hurricane Preparation Video, Emergency Preparedness Series.”)

It’s true that people who are within hours of being hit by a hurricane don’t have the luxury of waiting a day, let alone a week, for their food supplies and candles to show up in a brown box.

Same-day delivery, which some online retailers have experimented with, may not help in an emergency situation, when delivery trucks may not be cleared to head out.

Still, experts say that retailers are making a big mistake if they ignore technology completely at a time like this. In fact, smart retailers can use their websites, Facebook pages and other technology to help consumers figure out what stores are open, and who has items in stock.

Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings, which includes Sears and Kmart, said the retailer is doing just that, targeting customers in the vast storm-affected area with e-mails, website banners and Facebook posts.

The retailer also is making use of technology that lets consumers see what items are in stock nearby, including storm essentials like generators and chain saws.

“Sears and Kmart have been around in these communities for a number of years. They’ve always had a history of working in these communities,” Aiello said. “What’s different is this technology and how that’s really helping.”

Wal-Mart is keeping a list of storm-related store closures on a portion of its website reserved for disaster response. The company also posted a link to ready.gov, the government preparedness website, on its Facebook page.  

Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg said the retailer was using local Facebook pages and geo-targeted Facebook posts to keep people in the affected area up to date on store openings and other information.

Target posted an image of the Hurricane Sandy forecast along with a list of store closures. The company also said that it was bringing extra supplies, such as batteries and food, into stores in the area.

Sozzi, the retail analyst, was pleased to see that some retailers were making an effort to use technology to better serve customers heading to a physical store.

Jim Sinegal, Co-founder and former CEO of Costco, explains how retailers keep their shelves stocked ahead of the storm, and the potential impact on the election.

Still, he said he would have liked to see retailers get a lot more aggressive about communicating to customers that such tools are available.

He said most customers still probably aren’t aware that they could go to a website and check on store inventories, and instead are relying on old-fashioned methods like calling stores and driving from location to location.

“I think across the board, everybody has done a lame job,” he said.

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