A winter storm is making its way to the Northeast — and retailers are bracing for the impact.
According to the National Weather Service, Winter Storm Gail will intensify into a high-impact nor’easter starting Wednesday. It is expected to bring heavy snow, strong winds and some coastal flooding to certain parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including New York City, the capital of Washington, D.C., and areas near Philadelphia as well as Boston. (Meteorologists have predicted that the heaviest snowfall will occur along the I-95 corridor.)
The storm comes at a challenging time for nonessential retailers: Early in the COVID-19 health crisis, many of them had to shutter for several weeks due to government-mandated restrictions — and a surge in new infections could lead to renewed lockdowns that could precipitate permanent closures and even more layoffs.
Eneslow Shoes & Orthotics is one casualty: The nearly 112-year-old retailer’s flagship on Manhattan’s Park Avenue is permanently shutting its doors on Saturday. The business, said president and CEO Robert Schwartz, has been roughly “70% down since the pandemic [hit] — with no recovery in sight. Manhattan is a ghost town.”
Currently, 90% of Eneslow’s sales are conducted via brick and mortar — through the midtown shop, as well as its boutiques in the Upper East Side and Long Island — with a “small base” of e-commerce. “That, of course, is going to have to change,” Schwartz said. “[Brick and mortar] is still a place where our customers need us, and we’ll be able to survive that, but we’re going from 30,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet in the next week.”
At Washington, D.C.-based Comfort One, which closed for three months in the spring and reopened in mid-June, pedorthic sales associate Todd Lippert explained that store traffic used to be bolstered by the guests who stayed at a nearby hotel — but with travel business cut by roughly 40%, “most of what’s keeping us alive right now is online.”
What’s more, he predicted that the upcoming storm could deliver a hit-or-miss in sales for the retailer. “Some people may have had boots from last year they haven’t worn yet, and some will need to get new snow boots. That could be a few hours of people coming in to get boots,” he said. “But now that we have the pandemic at the same time, the fact that they’re in an enclosed environment all the time, they might not have as great a need this time. We just don’t know.”
In Boston, Justin Burdon, co-founder of Heartbreak Hill Running Co., said he has seen “record sales” so far throughout the holidays, and “there hasn’t been any indication that it’ll slow down.” (The retailer carries brands like Brooks, Asics, Saucony and Hoka One One — all of which have enjoyed marked success amid the athleisure boom further spurred by coronavirus-induced work-from-home lifestyles.)
As for the imminent inclement weather, he explained that the store is “used to these types of storms, so we aren’t doing anything special to prepare. It’ll likely disrupt our in-store business for a day or two, but I’d expect to see stronger e-commerce as a result.” He added, “I’m never too concerned since these short-term disruptions tend to even out across sales channels and over time.”
Over in Philadelphia, Steve Jamison, who owns Blue Sole Shoes, plans to keep business going both online and in stores during the storm. Currently, with the state’s “Safer at Home” restrictions, retailers are permitted to operate at only 50% capacity, with no more than five people per 1,000 square feet, including staff members. (The boutique is currently operating with a three-person team.)
“We’re holding OK, and it’s mainly because there’s not a lot of traffic,” Jamison said. “People are more cautious, so they’re not shopping in person as much, but the people who do come in tend to be more serious shoppers. They do a lot less looking and more actual buying.”
And back in New York, Extra Butter CEO Ankur Amin — which has a store in the Lower East Side and a newly debuted outpost in Long Island City — shared a similar sentiment regarding a slowdown in store visits. He said the main unit on Orchard Street “hasn’t seen much traffic” and is “probably off by 60% to 70%,” while the Long Island City location “doesn’t have any history but traffic seems consistent.” He, too, observed an uptick in mission-driven shopping.
As it prepares for the storm, it could end up temporarily closing the shops or reduced staffing needs. “Right now, it’s a wait-and-see approach,” Amin said. “Our businesses rely on experiential sales tactics, and it’s best for us to keep our stores open,” along with safety precautions including frequent sanitizing of high-touch areas and requiring masks in stores.
Winter Storm Gail also has the potential to severely impact logistics operations, causing delivery delays ahead of the Christmas holiday. Couriers like the USPS, UPS and FedEx are already bogged down with high volumes of packages and shipping constraints amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re expecting to be affected by the slowing or the congestion of shipments,” added Jamison. “That’s something you can’t really prepare for. We’re just warning our customers in advance about placing orders online or over the phone to expect delays and take that into consideration. They’re still supportive of us in that way.”
He added, “We’re always optimistic. We’ve been able to weather the storm.”
—With contributions from Jennie Bell