The so-called "blizzard of the century" toppled traditional sales patterns at Eastern U.S. supermarkets last week. Supermarkets were recoiling late last week after record-setting snowfalls, as seemingly endless checkout lines and serious product shortages challenged even the most prepared of operators. Even as they geared for a potential second round of snow late in the week, operators moved quickly to restock basic food items and general merchandise necessities such as rock salt and shovels, according to an SN survey. The historic blizzard's reach was felt from New England down through the mid-Atlantic states and West to Ohio, dumping 2 to 3 feet of snow in many areas. In coastal areas, such as along the New Jersey shore, lines were particularly long and out-of-stocks were common.
Sales were extremely heavy over the weekend prior to the storm, with one operator comparing the shopper lineups to scenes he'd seen from Russia. But business was at a virtual standstill last Monday as the snow itself -- and the heavy drifts it left in its wake -- made roads impassable and kept people indoors for most of the day. Some stores closed for a few hours.
Retailers said they had anticipated the storm and increased their store deliveries on basics like milk, bread and eggs accordingly -- yet supplies on some food staples still ran short as people stocked up. As weather conditions eased up last Tuesday, business was
closer to normal at most companies. Operators were mostly successful in returning inventories and work schedules to somewhere near typical levels. Stew Leonard Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer of Stew Leonard's, Norwalk, Conn., said sales on Monday were down about 80% "because a lot of people couldn't get to the stores." But the two prior days, he said, "were incredible, unbelievable -- it looked like Christmas in the stores, especially on Sunday." "The lines for perishables were so long and customers were so anxious to get product that it was like looking at a store in Russia," he said.
Leonard said his two stores sold 100,000 half-gallons of milk over the weekend, compared with a norm of 30,000 to 40,000 half- gallons, and 50,000 loaves of fresh bread, compared with a norm of 20,000 loaves. The stores anticipated heavier business and had bottled extra milk and ordered adequate supplies to handle the demand, Leonard said. "We didn't run out of anything, but it was really hard keeping up with demand at the peak period when people came out to shop at the last minute, before the storm hit," he added. At Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., while 95% of its units were open last Monday, four stores in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania didn't open "because the managers couldn't get to them," Stan Sorkin, vice president of public affairs, told SN. He said a fifth store was closed when the roof collapsed at a Marshall's in the same shopping center in Edison, N.J., and the police closed down the center.
Although the chain stocked up in advance of the storm on heavy consumables like bread, milk and eggs, it did have some shortages, Sorkin said. But regular deliveries resumed at 5 a.m. Tuesday, including direct-store delivered items. Jack Twyman, chairman and CEO of Super Food Services, Miamisburg, Ohio, said last week's blizzard was the third time this season that authorities in central Ohio declared a Level 3 emergency, which means only emergency vehicles were allowed on the roads. As a result, Super Foods went to a holiday schedule on Monday, Twyman said, which meant no deliveries for one day and heavier shipments the subsequent four days. Twyman said business among the wholesaler's customers was heavier than usual in anticipation of the storm, and he said business remained strong early in the week. At Food Circus Supermarkets in Middletown, N.J., the lines mirrored the shopper anxiety felt at supermarkets along coastal New Jersey, said Joseph Azzolina Jr., director of planning and development.
"Sunday was a panic situation, everyone was trying to get back home as soon as possible," he said. "There were lines down the aisles. We ran out of bread but had plenty of milk and eggs. "By Tuesday, our milk supply was running short and we didn't get deliveries right away. Bread was also short and we weren't going to be back full on bread till Thursday."
Kroger Co.'s Cincinnati division was particularly challenged, with 14 inches of snow, the most that's fallen ever in a 24-hour period in the Cincinnati/Dayton area, said Reuben Shaffer, director of human resources and communications for that division.
Shaffer noted that manpower shortages in the stores caused a problem, but the situation was back to normal at mid-week with both inventories and manpower.
While the storm hit parts of New York hard, it sidestepped Syracuse, home of P&C Food Markets. But the company, a division of Penn Traffic, was challenged in supplying Penn Traffic's Insalaco stores in Pennsylvania, said Sue Hosey, vice president of consumer affairs for P&C. The Insalacos are located in the north-central Pennsylvania and Scranton/Wilkes Barre areas.
"Most of the Insalacos remained open with skeleton crews," she said. "But stores were empty since people didn't go out onto the roads. There was a lot of stocking-up buying beforehand."
At Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., the storm was something of a surprise because it wasn't originally forecast to come that far North, said Claire D'Amour, vice president of corporate affairs. However, by Sunday, when the region realized the snow would hit, "our stores were pretty crowded, of course. On Monday, we closed our stores between 2 and 4 p.m."
But by Tuesday the situation was turning around and deliveries were getting back to normal, she said. At A&P, Michael Rourke, senior vice president of communications and corporate affairs, said the Montvale, N.J.-based chain was affected from New England to Washington. "We kept most of the stores open; there were a few instances of stores closing Monday. There was a lot of shopping Saturday and Sunday morning, and that volume went directly down later Sunday and on Monday.