Bring It On

Northeast chains thrive on cold weather woes to fire up sales

Traci Carneal, Freelance writer

Some retailers dread a blast of snow, sleet or an extended bout of below-freezing temps, but not Nice N Easy.

Just ask Fran Duskiewicz, the Canastota, N.Y.-based chain’s senior executive vice president and unofficial weather guru. “I’ll take a heavy snow season over a gray, nondescript winter any day,” he says. “We had that type of bland season two years ago, and our sales were literally sliced in half.”

That’s right: Bad weather means sales opportunities.

Duskiewicz has led the chain’s efforts to correlate sales with weather patterns. It’s so important, the company developed software to manage labor and workforce based on sales, and the weather plays a huge role. The bottom line is cold winter months with typical upstate New York weather is a retailer’s treasure trove.

With 81 locations scattered throughout central New York, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes count on mounds of snow to boost sales of produce and other groceries, foodservice fare and washer fluid. In fact, the chain sells “cases and cases” of windshield washer fluid to combat the salt residue left behind by the plows. It’s the chain’s best-selling winter item, with some stores selling $1,000 worth a week at high profit margins, Duskiewicz estimates.

He recalls a winning season a few years ago when Nice N Easy stores in Oswego County got 10 feet of snow in 10 days, while the sun was out in Syracuse and the ground was bare. “We nailed it during that time period, with big sales everywhere,” he says.

“The perfect winter weather scenario for us is a season with heavy lake-effect snows in areas to the north of Syracuse and where the snow bands do not drift south enough to bother the general Syracuse area,” Duskiewicz says. When that happens, snow enthusiasts head out every weekend to the regions with snow for a wide range of winter activities. When Syracuse actually gets hit with major snows and folks can snowmobile in their own neighborhoods, “the snow-belt stores take a hit.”

In contrast, two years ago the Syracuse area experienced a warm winter season, with less than half the average yearly snowfall of 120 inches. That is the season the washer-fluid sales were pummeled, and snow-belt stores saw sharp declines in food sales and gasoline gallons.

“The flip side of that was a dramatic drop in expenses,” Duskiewicz says, “particularly snow removal and utilities.”

Washer fluid is also a top seller for Verc Enterprises, a 22-store chain based in Duxbury, Mass. “We replace our outside summer display of Poland Spring water case packs with windshield washer fluid,” says Courtney Vercollone, Verc’s marketing assistant. The washer fluid is placed near the storefront firewood so customers can see the product from the street and while pumping gas.

Hot drinks and washer fluid aside, both Verc and Nice N Easy know how to lure customers when the snow and frigid temps strike.

Fill-In Groceries
Nice N Easy stores in more rural locations become the neighborhood market when residents don’t want to drive 15 to 20 minutes to a grocery store.

“When the tough weather comes to the snow belt and lake areas, we find we get shopped heavily by providing basic provisions such as produce, foodservice and groceries,” Duskiewicz says. Working with Nielsen Claritas, the chain researched this trend and identified specific stores where fill-in groceries were very highly indexed and underserved.

“We’ve cranked up the grocery offerings in those stores in the past two years based on this research, and it has really paid off,” Duskiewicz says. He sees opportunities for convenience stores in other small towns and rural areas where folks may not want to trek to their usual grocery outlet in dismal weather. A solid inventory of staple items—produce, bread, milk and eggs, along with varied foodservice options for any meal—can turn a c-store into a local mini-market.

In Nice N Easy store vicinities, unplowed roads are never an issue, because the chain gets “on it and stays on it” when it comes to keeping the roads clear. However, stores located in the Lake Ontario area are prone to the “lake effect,” which can pile up to a foot of snow a day for extended periods of time, leading to whiteouts.

“The lake effect is common in areas north of Syracuse,” Duskiewicz says, “so we make sure those stores are stocked well and residents know it.”

Another marketing strategy entails luring snowmobilers to Nice N Easy stores for snacks, drinks and other needs. A major sponsor of snowmobile trails, the chain places signs along the paths with arrows directing riders to the closest store (see image).

As for shovels and dry ice, Duskiewicz leaves those items mostly to the local hardware stores, which are always fully stocked.

“We aren’t like other areas of the country where people panic when a storm is coming and wipe out all the grocery stores and buy up all the shovels,” he says. “People already have their shovels and are ready to go. Sometimes with the first hard frost we will get a lot of people looking for new scrappers. They get dull from too much use.”

Stores You Can Count On
While cold weather presents many sales opportunities, it also brings challenges.

“Paying at the pump becomes more important to motorists in the winter as they want to just pay and leave,” says Timothy Powell, principal and c-store practice lead for Chicago-based Technomic. “It leaves little time or interest for them to enter the store.” Some retailers encourage those paying at the pump to come inside for a “fresh cup of hot coffee.”

Verc encounters extreme winter weather each year and tries to stay stocked up on emergency essentials such as water, flashlights, batteries, firewood, and propane tanks if conditions worsen. “Our customers know they can count on their local Verc store, with or without power, to be open,” Vercollone says.

The chain continues to expand its cold weather offerings to meet customer needs. In addition to ice scrapers, antifreeze and a hat and mitten display, Verc is now eyeing electronic cigarettes as a product with winter weather appeal.

“As the weather gets colder, we can offer consumers a clean and safe way to smoke inside by using the electronic cigarette,” Vercollone says. Verc has educated store associates on the product and is exploring the best way to display e-cigs so customers can learn more about them.

Now that’s a very cool winter sales strategy.