NEW YORK - It's the not-so-quiet before the storm.
People up and down the Eastern Seaboard are crowding hardware stores, grocers and big-box retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart to pick up $599 generators, bottled water and flashlights in preparation for Hurricane Irene, which is expected to hit landfall by Saturday.
At Ace Hardware in Elizabeth City, N.C., near where the hurricane is expected to land, business on Thursday was triple what it is normally on that day. The ShopRite in West Orange, N.J., was chaotic on Friday afternoon, with cars honking as people waited to get into the parking lot. The Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., sold out of portable generators by Thursday.
"With everyone saying this is going to be a bad one, no one is leaving anything to chance," said John Robbins, an employee at the Nags Head store.
Some retailers are getting a boost in business, but extreme weather like hurricanes is damaging to the retail sector as a whole. And this one is coming in the thick of the critical back-to-school shopping weekend, a time when some merchants make up to 25 percent of their annual revenue. In fact, weather research firm Planalytics estimates that Irene will stop 80 million shoppers from hitting the malls this weekend. At the same time, demand for hurricane-related supplies is giving some retailers an unexpected boost that will likely continue as people deal with the cleanup in Irene's aftermath.
In a note to clients on Thursday, Citigroup analysts Deborah Weinswig and Tina Hwang said they expect department stores will suffer with shoppers locked up inside their homes, while discount stores, supermarkets and home-improvement stores will get a rush of customers eager to stock up on canned foods, batteries and other survival gear.
To meet the increased demand, many big retailers like Home Depot, Lowes and Wal-Mart have assembled
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has its own staff meteorologist, who can evaluate the weather data and analyze how it will impact its stores and workers. The discounter also can forecast what shoppers are looking for before a hurricane strikes -- and in its aftermath -- by using predictive modeling that studies past spending behavior.
Mark Cooper, senior director of Wal-Mart's emergency management team, said the retailer is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that stores have all the items on its list for emergency preparedness kits. The list, which is on www.ready.gov, includes batteries and cleaning supplies. In the Northeast, Cooper said Wal-Mart also plans to push more supplies like bug spray and clean up products in anticipation of flooding.
"Katrina is the benchmark for hurricanes," said Cooper, who estimates that about 600 of the more than 4,000 Wal-Mart stores could be impacted by the storm. "We'll see how this one goes. Regardless of size, we will be prepared."
At Home Depot's 24-hour command center, 100 associates that include human resource associates and logistics executives, are carefully monitoring TVs and coordinating response efforts. Home Depot's emergency preparedness team started working this past weekend with its stores in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which have already been hit by Irene. By Friday morning, Home Depot had 500 trucks supplying its East Coast stores with products that are in demand, like generators.
"Product is selling just as fast as it arrives," said Steve Holmes, senior manager of corporate communications for Home Depot, the nation's biggest home improvement retailer.
By Friday, Lowe's sent out 500 trucks so that stores could quickly be restocked with hurricane-related items, including cleaning chemicals, mops, brooms, sump pumps, wet/dry vacuums. "This is a huge storm, especially in the Northeast when they're not used to hurricanes," said Katherine Cody, a spokeswoman at Lowe's, the nation's second largest home-improvement retailer.
For all their preparation, a hurricane can still take retailers by surprise, particularly at stores in areas that are being evacuated. At the Ace Hardware in Nags Head, the store sold out of generators and sandbags. And one grocer in Elizabeth City, N.C. was so busy that workers didn't even have time to give specifics.
"I've got a line of people out the door. I don't have time to talk. Have a good day," said a worker who answered the phone on Thursday at Weeksville Grocery in Elizabeth City.
So many shoppers were snapping up goods at the ShopRite in West Orange, N.J. on Friday afternoon that Amelia Panico had to settle for buying a few gallon-size jugs of water because the store sold out of the smaller bottles she wanted. "It's now or never," she said after braving lines that snaked through the store.
At the Ace Hardware in Elizabeth City, sales of electric lanterns, charcoal, batteries and pure oil -- which is used for old-fashioned kerosene lamps that are popular in low-income areas -- were strong this week that Dorran Hulse, the store's manager, had to order an additional shipment of items.
"As soon as we did it, people came in and bought items," he said. "We were telling them what time the truck was going to be in and people were here waiting for it."
In Kitty Hawk, there were unusually long lines at the Home Depot, which displayed several pallets of 5,000-watt portable generators for $599 -- enough to keep the power going in a house.
Jim Rogers, 52, of Kitty Hawk, was loading plywood into the back of his pickup truck outside of Home Depot. Inside his truck, he had a tarp and rope to use to cover and tie down his patio furniture.
"Everyone is just trying to protect their homes," said Rogers, who plans to evacuate after securing him house.