The supermarket industry was trying its best last week to cool the effects of a nationwide heat wave that brought violent storms to St. Louis, a marathon power outage in New York City and triple-digit temperatures in the West.
In St. Louis, a severe storm with winds up to 90 miles an hour arrived suddenly on the evening of July 19, knocking down trees, blowing over trucks on highways, and damaging buildings and power lines throughout the region. A second storm, spawning several tornados, followed less than 48 hours later, the National Weather Service said.
"This has been the most significant natural disaster our company has ever faced," Lori Willis, a spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets told SN last week. At one point, she said, at least 26 of the chain's 67 St. Louis area stores had lost power as a result of the storms, and four stores were closed for business. "That's highly unusual for us, to have four stores closed. But I think we held up pretty well considering all the challenges we faced."
While many of the affected stores were able to open using backup generator power, the sources provided only enough juice for interior and exterior lighting and front-end
operations, Willis said. Generators malfunctioned at two locations. Willis said the company would have to assess product losses but noted they were "significant." Food safety teams visited affected stores and "threw away a tremendous amount of food," spoiled due to a lack of refrigeration, she said.
On the positive side, the self-distributing chain worked quickly to replenish supplies at its stores and provide basic needs for area shoppers. Schnucks hauled more than 25 truckloads of bagged ice to its stores in the first few days after the storm, Willis said.
"We found out our stores are more than just stores - they're community gathering places," Willis said. "We were fortunate to fulfill a need in our communities and keep our stores well-stocked. And with so many stores in the area, we could direct customers to another of our locations if one was closed."
Shop n' Save, St. Louis, had seven stores lose power during the first storm and six more in the second storm, a company spokeswoman told SN. Those stores used backup generators until power was restored.
As a marathon power outage stretched into a second week in sections of Queens, N.Y., last week, food stores powered by generators struggled to attract shoppers who themselves had no means of keeping their food cold. Hundreds of food-related businesses suffered product spoilage, officials said. Power was restored to most affected customers by last Wednesday.
In the Astoria section of Queens, the Best Yet Market had been without power for a week, an assistant manager told SN last Tuesday. A rented generator provided enough electricity to keep coolers running and the lights on, but area residents weren't buying much.
"The whole neighborhood's been blacked out," the assistant manager said.
Power began failing in sections of Queens on July 17 as New York City faced several consecutive days with temperatures in the high 90s. With demand for electricity high, networks of cables, transformers and other equipment sustained "major damage," according to Con Edison. The outage affected as many as 100,000 people and more than 550 businesses in an eight-square-mile area.
The city's Small Business Services agency provided businesses with claim forms for reimbursement for spoiled perishable food up to $7,000.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene dispatched 25 food inspectors to address food safety issues, ensuring food merchants and restaurants discarded spoiled food.
Several supermarkets in the area contacted by SN reported they operated on generator power until their power was restored. Business was brisk for staple items, but shoppers bought in small quantities and overall traffic was down.
Beyond "a few flickering lights," during the heat wave, the massive Costco store in Long Island City escaped the power outage completely, a store manager said. Shoppers over the weekend noted that interior lights were dimmed in some freezer cases and other areas of the warehouse to comply with pleas from Con Edison for businesses to conserve energy.
A Western Beef store in Long Island City had power last week but business was slow, an assistant manager told SN. "What good is it to buy something if you can't keep it cold or cook it," said the manager, whose store features a large selection of fresh meats. A nearby Pathmark experienced a one-day "brownout" of reduced power, supplemented by a backup generator, an employee said. Area residents shopped the store for basics like milk and water, she added.
More than two weeks of temperatures exceeding 90 degrees in Southern California - and soaring to triple digits in some areas - have had only a small impact on shopping patterns there, retailers told SN.
Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif., said sales of fresh items and beverages have spiked during the Southern California heat wave. "Heat dulls the palate to bulk-type foods, but that's offset by higher sales of fresh foods and certain beverages," he said.
The No. 1 item at Stater these days has been ice, he said. "It's impossible to stay in stock because consumers who have lost power buy it for their freezers or refrigerators to save what they have," he explained. He said Stater lost power temporarily at 10 stores but used backup generators at four of them.
Mark Oerum, one of the partners in HOWS Markets, Pasadena, Calif., said, "Water is flying out the door. We sold three truckloads of water at four stores in one week - that's 64 pallets of Arrowhead Water, priced two for $7 for a 24-count of half-liter bottles, compared with a norm of 15-20 pallets sold in a single week."
Rod Van Bebber, senior vice president, distribution, for Unified Western Grocers, Los Angeles, said it's tough on warehouse workers "whenever temperatures heat up, and there's a lot more movement on water and sports drinks."