Freeze Drives Boots, But Traffic Stalls

NEW YORK — There were clear winners and losers at retail during last week’s bone-chilling polar vortex.

Record-breaking cold temperatures and snowfall across much of the Midwest, East and South kept many shoppers at home. But among the items that sold briskly to those who ventured out were outdoor gear and boots, which had been a tough sell during previous, unseasonably warm winters.

“Overall, we’ve had a good season and that isn’t specific to one product, but the weather has really helped,” said Connie Rishwain, president of Ugg Australia. She also said that a previously planned “Let It Snow” advertising campaign aimed at cold-weather gear was well timed and contributed to the sales boost.

Sam Poser, an analyst with Sterne Agee, estimated that Ugg’s December retail sales jumped as much as 20 percent year-over-year. He added that other cold-weather brands are benefiting as well. “Given the snow and the mud, people want waterproof boots. Kamik, Sorel and Ugg have been selling like crazy,” Poser said.

While many consumers put off purchasing winter footwear before the cold snap, they opened their wallets once it hit.

Ahead of fourth-quarter earnings reports, Christopher Svezia, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, raised his estimates for Columbia Sportswear Co., VF Corp. and Wolverine World Wide Inc., as a result of the deep freeze.

“Clearly, favorable weather has had an influence during December, given an increased ‘wear now’ consumer mentality,” he wrote in a note to investors. “While there is some opportunity to chase inventory, overall conservative inventory planning this season will lead to less reserve product and opportunity for sales upside.”

Independent retailers named Sorel, owned by Columbia, as one of the in-demand products. The brand said the season started strong after it introduced boots that were lighter-weight and less insulated than in previous seasons.

“Just as we know it won’t be 60 degrees every January in Chicago, like it was the past two years, we also know it won’t be -60 degrees every January in Chicago. That reality reinforces our long-term strategy of broadening the consumer appeal and versatility of Sorel to make it less cold-weather-dependent,” said Pat Delisle, Sorel’s U.S. national sales director.

The bitter chill that drove up demand left a void in inventory for some stores.

At Stan’s Fit For Your Feet in Milwaukee, store President and CEO Jim Sajdak said that despite the regularly cold temperatures for the region, this year’s winter storm was troublesome due to the lack of available product.

“We had one good day with the weather in the high teens, but we had to disappoint so many people because we were out of boots. We’ve been sold out all season, and vendors are sold out as well,” Sajdak said. “I don’t think any manufacturer puts heavy inventories in anymore.”

Similarly in Boston, which had two feet of snow right after the new year, Berk’s Shoes was still trying to keep up with demand.

“During the snowstorms, people don’t come out and when they do, they’ll come in looking for only one thing: waterproof and insulated boots,” said owner Ken Berk. “We’ve had to reorder many times because of the weather.”

While boots and cold-weather accessories flew off shelves in recent weeks, retailers said regular business was hit hard. Stores across the country were forced to close or shorten hours, while many states issued travel warnings that kept an estimated 200 million affected Americans at home.

Jeff Van Sinderen, an analyst at B. Biley & Co., said the cold weather hit many retailers’ bottom lines. “The cold freeze will absolutely hurt business — it’s already started to. The recent snowstorm in New York hurt business, and the general cold is impacting sales,” he said.

In the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Co., said his business had seen a shift in demand.

“With the severe weather like this, we were selling a lot more apparel than shoes. However, the good thing with that is we’re selling out of our winter inventory, and that means we’ll have less to mark down come spring,” Hartner said.

In Indianapolis, outdoor retailer Rusted Moon Outfitters manager Nate Gillette noted that due to last year’s mild winter, the store purchased fewer insulated boots. Instead, he said, many customers were asking for heavy-duty socks for their hiking boots.

“Since the winters are so inconsistent here, it’s hard for our customer to pull the trigger on a $100 to $150 boot,” he said.

While traffic was weak during the worst of the polar chill, both independent retailers and brands said e-commerce proved to be a bright spot.

“As a national company, we may see weather conditions — both adverse and favorable — in one region versus another, impacting traffic in those particular stores,” said Glenn Lyon, chairman and CEO of The Finish Line Inc. “With our omnichannel strategy, however, we are enabled and focused on reaching our customers 24/7 with premium and exciting product, no matter what happens with the weather.”

Likewise, Sorel’s Delisle said the brand received e-commerce orders from consumers in Southern states that were unexpectedly hit with the arctic air. Ugg also reported that online sales continue to be strong.

As for retailers, some used the weather as an opportunity to take up spring cleaning.

“On a day like today, this is a day to clean up,” Ikram Goldman, owner of high-end boutique Ikram in Chicago, said during the worst of the weather last Monday. “Use two awfully cold days to clean up and be proactive for the rest of the season. That puts you in the best place for spring.”

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