Walmart’s Weatherman

Harsh winters can be bad news for retailers. That’s one reason they call in corporate meteorologists. 

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Reuters
After months of snowstorms and bitter cold ruined holiday and first-quarter sales across the board last year, retailers are eager to prove they can do better this time around.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Mike Smith woke up at 7 a.m. last Wednesday, his inbox and Facebook were flooded with questions about a tornado watch across much of the American South. It didn’t take long for Smith, the senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, to figure out what was going on: That morning, the National Weather Service had pushed out thousands of false tornado watches to smartphones, social media, and the NWS wire. Even the Weather Channel had picked up the warning. Smith’s clients hadn’t gotten any of those false messages through AccuWeather, whose systems had recognized them as inaccurate and filtered them out. Still, they were wondering what might be going on. Smith got up, wrote a blog post on the issue, and advised his clients to keep calm and carry on.

Smith is what’s known as a commercial meteorologist. Rather than appearing on TV to report the daily forecast like your local weatherman, Smith and AccuWeather work behind the scenes to provide companies with customized weather data and analysis. On some days, like last Wednesday, that can entail cooling unfounded fears, while on others it means assisting corporate clients in prepping for a natural disaster. Whatever the weather throws at stores and shoppers, it’s the job of commercial meteorologists to help stores and their emergency management teams put a plan in place. And after last year’s brutal winter depressed sales everywhere, stores are also leaning on weather consultants to help keep customers coming and the right merchandise stocked when the cold sets in.

In October 2012, as the Eastern seaboard hunkered down ahead of Hurricane Sandy, big-box retailers mobilized. Most had already tracked the storm for days, with help from consultants like Smith. The planning showed: Hundreds of trucks snaked into Lowe’s stores in the storm’s path, carrying water, tarps, flashlights, and batteries. Just beyond the storm’s predicted strike zone, Home Depot filled trailers with cleaning supplies, wet-dry vacuums, and more water. Walmart’s Sam’s Club sent 7,000 generators to the Northeast and enlisted employees from as far as Pittsburgh to stock shelves in its New Jersey locations. As Sandy neared landfall, weather consultants’ updates came faster and more frequently.

Of course, we aren’t hit by hurricanes and storms every day. So what do commercial meteorologists—especially the ones that work with retailers—do all year round? “A lot of clients are using us to understand how demand is shifting throughout the year,” says Adam Moyer, senior vice president for analytics and weather operations at Planalytics. “The big events are what drive people to us, but I would argue that a lot of the value we provide is in the day-to-day operations. That stuff is small, but it adds up over time—like knowing how a 5-degree anomaly in temperature one week is going to affect air-conditioner sales.”

While subtle shifts in weather can affect sales of everything from outdoor house paint to beer to swimwear, and the right insight from commercial meteorologists can help retailers make a killing, the job can be mundane day to day. “There’s a lot of detailed statistics, there’s a lot of graphing that I have to do,” says Rosemary Radich, senior research analyst for AccuWeather. “A lot of the time is spent in front of a computer sifting through data.”

Many businesses contract out these services: Planalytics’ clients include Dunkin’ Donuts, Rite Aid, Caterpillar, and Coca Cola; AccuWeather works with 241 of the Fortune 500 companies but declined to share specific names. But some of the biggest and most weather-sensitive companies employ meteorologists in-house. FedEx has a staff of 15, at least one of whom is always on call. Kory Gempler, the manager of FedEx’s meteorology team, says it issues two to three forecasts a day and advises pilots on issues like how much fuel they should pump onto aircraft. Winter storms, he says, are actually among the easiest weather events deal with. “The snow is going to cover a wide area,” Gempler says. “It does get difficult when we’re dealing with the transition zone and the precipitation type changes—is it going to be sleet? Freezing rain?—but those are fairly narrow. Thunderstorm forecasting is always a little more difficult because of the dynamic nature.”

Coming off this year’s light hurricane season, the main weather concern for retailers will likely be winter temperatures. After months of snowstorms and bitter cold ruined holiday and first-quarter sales across the board last year, retailers are eager to prove they can do better this time around. Retail sales fell 0.4 percent in January and when first-quarter results rolled around, big companies like Walmart, Home Depot, and Macy’s cited “weather” more than a dozen times each as the reason for their poor performances. “There’s always a lot of pressure, but I feel like there’s a lot of interest in the cold we’re having now and how long that’s going to last and the possible effects for the next few months,” says Lucas McDonald, Walmart’s senior manager for emergency operations. “There was definitely a reaction last year to the cold.”

When the National Weather Service, AccuWeather, and the Weather Channel released their annual winter outlooks last month, the ambivalent consensus was that coastal storms and polar vortex conditions might return this winter. For Planalytics, that’s meant part of the job lately has involved reassuring retailers as the holidays approach. “You’re not going to have a winter as bad as last year back-to-back,” Moyer says. “Retailers were pretty cool with that until October, and then a lot of these long-range forecasts started coming out in the media and they started freaking out. People are more skittish this year.” Radich says she’s also noticed more queries from clients “with all the news around the polar vortex.”

McDonald, who joined Walmart seven years ago after starting his career as a TV weatherman, said he often gets requests for an advance forecast, and tries to help managers understand “how accurate it may or may not be.” These days, he thinks the sector is getting hot: He’s seeing more and more TV meteorologists making the switch to the commercial sector. That should be good news for retailers, who are likely looking to scoop up meteorological advice if they aren’t getting it already. “Companies are really starting to figure out that they need to account for weather,” Radich says. “We’ve seen a lot of companies say in the press when they don’t perform as well as expected, ‘Oh, well, the weather.’ We can’t change the weather, but we can change how we react to it.”

True. This year, blaming it on the weather might not work so well.