Weather influences consumer spending habits and mood

If you are wondering whether or not buyers will come into your store, and what they might be in the mood to buy, you might do well to look less to U.S. Commerce data and various shopping expert opinions and more to what the weather might bring.
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If you are wondering whether or not buyers will come into your store, and what they might be in the mood to buy, you might do well to look less to U.S. Commerce data and various shopping expert opinions and more to what the weather might bring.

Consider for example, that despite soft comparable-store sales results for March and rising gas prices, market research firm Retail Forward predicted in early April that retail spending would bounce back in April.

Results from the company’s ShopperScape survey, a poll of 4,000 “primary household shoppers” that took place during the last week of March, indicated that households with an annual income between $22,500 and $75,000 were increasingly optimistic. The Future Spending Index for what the company terms middle-market households rose to 102.8 in April compared with 99.1 in March, with the higher number indicating more potential of increased spending.

According to the survey, 22 percent of shoppers said they intended to spend more on clothing this year while 25 percent said they anticipated spending less on clothing than the prior year, with increased spending going for other things.

“The weakness in planned apparel spending is concentrated among middle- and down-market households,” said the report. The company defines down-market households as having incomes of less than $22,500.

The survey also revealed that soaring gas prices weren’t having the level of impact many analysts and retailers had feared. “Compared with last year’s May and August results, a smaller proportion of respondents last month said they are planning errands to minimize distance traveled, going to stores closer to home or changing vacation plans to save on gas,” said the report.

All this sounds fine and dandy, but it doesn't factor in reality or shopper moods influenced by changing weather.

Despite a report by the National Retail Federation that stated March retail sales were upbeat and retailers were feeling optimistic, Planalytics, a company the specializes in tracking weather's influence on buying and selling, noted recently that the earliest Easter in 15 years this year, combined with the coldest March since 2000, left many retailers wondering where the shoppers went. In fact, Planalytics' March Retail Weather Index (a scale that measures the impact of weather on consumer buying behavior) scored minus 15 percent -- the most unfavorable shopping environment for spring apparel since 2001 as well. Little wonder shorts and shirts weren't exactly moving out the door. Retailers still sitting on winter gear they hadn't yet marked down were smiling -- but only out of accidental good fortune and not likely because of foresight and planning.

And while Planalytics will agree consumers are in the mood to shop -- in large part they say because of pent-up demand from being so house-bound in March -- the month of April has not yet seen the predicted restoration of sales numbers that would make retailers smile.

Sure, spring sprung finally in much of the Northeast and east with warmer temperatures the first week of April, but strong spring storms and heavy rains served to wet down the shopping fever. Many areas in the South were deluged, which naturally increased the demand for emergency buys -- things such as batteries, flashlights, water, bread or milk -- but did little good for apparel sales.

In the Midwest and Plains states, temperatures were unseasonably high, and quite dry, which resulted in strong apparel and seasonal sales. However, in the West, temperatures remained cool and much colder than last year's warming trend that boosted sales late. Storms in the West also served to dampen the shopping mood and keep retailers feeling more on-edge about profits.

The second week of April realized better weather with warming and higher humidity in the Eastern two- thirds of the United States and that has driven sales of spring merchandise, including apparel, boats and camping gear -- sales were up, but still nowhere near what one might call a strong recovery from March. In the West, temps remain cool with storms rolling through, and the net result is that sales are down slightly from last year.

Planalytics predicted, in late March, that week three in April would be less favorable than last year and could mark the beginning of an extended negative trend with weather adversely affecting sales.

If true, we could be in for a long, hot summer.

How does weather influence consumers?

According the Planalytics, as well as experts at the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), weather has the following distinct impacts on consumer shopping behavior:

  1. Consumers are more concerned about precipitation (snow and rain) than temperature (cold and hot). They are less likely to shop during heavy precipitation and less likely to shop during temperature extremes.
  2. Consumers are inclined, according to U.S. Department of Commerce research, to spend money when weather is unusually mild. That certainly held true last year when the weather in March and April in the West was unusually mild.
  3. Weather can cause shifts in the timing of purchases. Since consumers have an increasingly "buy now" mentality, that can have a dramatic effect on sales made and sales missed -- see #5 below. In other words, weather can cause purchases that might not otherwise occur, and can cause a permanent loss of demand. As a retailer, knowing which is which is important for determining whether or not to begin marking down product to get it out of the store.
  4. Heavy snow will tend to deter 45 percent of consumers and scorching heat will deter 30 percent, according to an ICSC survey.
  5. Seventy-five percent of consumers tend to buy closer to use, and feel that stores are stocking shelves too early, according to an ICSC survey. That means stores do not have enough products on hand when consumers really want the goods.
  6. Weather, changes in weather and, just as importantly, forecasts of changes in weather, are significant modifiers of consumer behavior. Weather and weather forecasts dramatically influence where people spend their time, and therefore money, with precipitation being the primary influencer, and precipitation during the morning hours having the greatest impact.
  7. Just knowing weather trends is not enough, though. You have to know how consumers will respond to weather in your area. Rain in Seattle will mean different things to consumers experiencing rain in, say, Los Angeles, and influence shopping differently. Same, too, for snow in Atlanta versus snow in Buffalo.

--Michael Hodgson

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