Everyone in food retailing knows there's no better sales incentive than the prospect of a little snow. The moment a snowstorm is predicted, customers flock to the supermarket in great numbers to lay in supplies of grocery staples, batteries, beverages, shovels and what have you.
The best part of it is that all this shopping happens without external enticement: It's not necessary to stage promotions, to slash prices, to offer premiums or to do anything at all. Motivated customers buy what they need, and more.
Before another year passes, the equivalent of a vast snowstorm is going to fall, and it's possible to predict with some accuracy just when it will happen. This approaching storm is the year-2000 problem, but its effects may not be as benign as those of a brief snowstorm.
Much ink has been spilled over the Y2K problem in this journal and countless others. SN devoted a front-page news feature to the topic in the issue of Dec. 7, 1998, and mention is made of it in these pages virtually on a weekly basis. Much of what's been written about Y2K, though, goes to what companies are doing in a technical sense to make sure their systems will be able to bridge the time fissure represented by the shift from 1999 to 2000. But there is another dimension to the Y2K problem -- it's the social dimension. There are soothsayers in numbers who predict widespread system collapses, such as the meltdown of the electricity grid, the silencing of the telephone system, the crash of the banking system and on it goes. In short, many foresee the disintegration of the intricate networks of energy and information distribution upon which organized society depends; they see attendant results that are far too unpleasant to contemplate.
No doubt the feeling of impending doom is heightened by the fact that many invest mystical significance into time's progression to 2000. To them, the yearly change portends far more than just the ordered procession of a numbering sequence and they are convinced it too bodes ill.
What will transpire when the last page is torn off the calendar this December, if anything? Who knows? I certainly don't, although I tend to think the problem is manageable and that earth will not plummet from its orbit at the finale of 1999.
But the opinion of any single individual amounts to little. It's important to recognize that whether Y2K and the advance to 2000 prove to be events of consequence or not, a substantial proportion of the population is already convinced that next year's date change portends doom.
And here's where supermarkets come in: As this year winds down, hordes may descend on food stores in search of shelf-stable food supplies, batteries, candles, flashlights and other components of survival packages so they can weather the coming electronic snowstorm. Moreover, this will happen whether the need is rooted in reality or not.
Will supermarkets be ready for this uber blitz of shopping? Probably not, and it isn't a bit too soon to start thinking about how to deal with the social scope of this calendar phenomenon.