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The economic impact of weather on commerce and banking

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The U.S. Northeast has been experiencing unprecedented snowfall this winter season. In Boston, we’ve received almost 100 inches of snow to date (or 2.54 meters for my metric friends). And the winter is not over yet! (no weather events this week that I know of)

When Mother Nature goes into overdrive, I’m always struck by the impact to local retailers. In these parts, the looming news of a nor’easter (think very strong, gusty snow storm coming in from the north east) or talk in the media of a snow event has consumers rushing to home improvement stores to purchase shovels, rock salt and snow-blowers or doing a run on grocery stores (for eggs, bread and milk) to shore up provisions. This became abundantly clear last Saturday when I went out to do errands before the last blizzard hit.

A stop at the grocery store, a regional superstore, was in overdrive. Of the 16 check-out lanes they had available, 15 were open - 10 manned registers and 5 unmanned, self check-out kiosks. There were likely 4-6 people in each lane, most with moderate to full shopping carts.

The volume the grocer was running had me thinking of the scalability requirements of the point-of-sale terminals and payments systems needed to keep up with the volumes and not disrupt service. Not to mention the requisite payment data security requirements that go along with all the transactions running through those retailer systems.

Branch banking is not dead – yet
Before I headed home, I decided to run to the ATM in the same shopping plaza to withdraw some cash.   Even more amazing than the scene at the grocery store was the scene at this full service branch. There were 6 people in line for the two ATMs, 16 people in line at the teller window and 4 people in the lounge area waiting to be serviced. Did I miss a “free money giveaway” ad somewhere?  I would guess a good part of the activity was due to the fact that the aforementioned blizzard was coming and people questioned their ability to get money or important banking business done.  But for those of us who continue to predict and report on the imminent move to online and mobile banking, I have to say I was quite surprised at the activity in the branch.

The eCommerce effect
Later that night as the storm progressed, I found myself spending time shopping online in between shoveling snow. After all, I still need to buy new boots. We are in need of a new dryer. Should I book those airline tickets next (to a warm/beach destination)? If I’m stuck inside doing shopping, how many others are doing the same thing? This line of questioning made me wonder if an increase in online shopping would have enough of a counter-effect of the lost in-store sales. 

A stormy outlook for retailers?
While the storms can be a boon for merchants in some aspects, there’s also the flip side where bad weather inhibits in-store sales due to the fact that travel becomes a challenge. A family member working for a major global clothing store has had their downtown Boston store closed three times this winter due to the city subway system shutting down from weather, preventing workers from getting into the city by railway.  Store closures, limited hours, early closings and the like can be detrimental to the bottom line for major retailers and local, mom-and-pop shops.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) projected 2015 retail industry sales (which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants) will increase 4.1 percent, up from the 3.5 percent growth seen in 2014. The NRF also announced it expects online and non-store sales in 2015 to grow between 7 and 10 percent. I’m not sure how the recent weather in the northeast will impact those predictions overall, but I do know that weather can have a large impact on consumer purchasing needs (and this is not just a local issue, but a global one). Accordingly, a merchant retailer must have resilient, secure omni-channel payment options to respond to those fluctuations.