2012 Heats Up
Chris Gigley -- Casual Living, 9/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Mother nature gave outdoor retailers a break this year. The question entering the fall is whether a blazing hot summer wiped out any gains retailers got from a fantastic spring.
Just how good was the spring weather across the lower 48 states? According to a report from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), temperatures from March to May were the warmest on record for that period. The NOAA reported that 31 states recorded record spring warmth, while another 11 states enjoyed one of their 10 warmest springs ever.
"We always get the early birds who come out in the middle of March," said Michael Kapp of Taylor Creek in Green Bay, Wis. "But then we usually see a lull through the end of March and early April. This year, as soon as the snow was gone it was pretty constant all the way through. We didn't get any lulls until July 4th weekend."
And by then, added Kapp, sales were already up 20% over last year. One state over, Greg Peterson was enjoying even better results at his Minneapolis store. Peter's Billiards, which sells everything from pinball machines to patio furniture, hosts an annual sale in March.
"It was way over last year's," said Peterson, founder and president of Peter's Billiards. "I suppose we were up 50% for the first month or so, mostly because we had virtually no snow all winter and it was not that cold. It was the fastest start we've ever had."
Dan Gould's grill business at Outdoor Kitchen & Patio in Omaha, Neb., was up by more than 20% thanks to the unseasonably warm spring there.
"Our business was so huge in March, I was afraid it was sucking up all our April and May business," he said. "But it never dropped off. We're still up significantly in grills and still up 8 to 10% in furniture."
Jack Kosin of Bell Tower Outdoor Living in Richland, Mich. said he still can't believe the week-long stretch in March when temperatures soared past 90 degrees every day. Bell Tower does a particularly strong playsets business, and he said he noticed positive signs in early in March, when he displayed several sets at a local home show.
"People who attend the show are thinking about getting swing sets for the upcoming season, and generally that's not until May here," he said. "But this year people came in and put their deposits down right away. If there is snow on the ground you could have zero sales, so this was a unique situation."
If there were any complaints about the warm spring, it had to do with inventory. Kosin, for instance, said playset manufacturers had a tough time keeping him supplied. And in New Hampshire, Jeanne Larssen, president of Seasonal Specialty Stores, had to deal with a total shift in her customers' preferences.
"March is a big month for cushion furniture, whether our customers are buying from stock or special ordering," said Larssen. "But because people were wearing shorts in March, they just looked right past the cushion and started buying the sling."
Larssen's customers typically buy deep seating for screened-in porches, which are prevalent in New England thanks to buggy summers. As the weather warms, they buy sling furniture for pool and patio. By August, she and her staff were discussing what they should do, particularly with the new deep seating sets they were trying.
"It's hard to get a good opinion on the new sets because the conditions were so different," she said. "We're debating whether people liked these sets or not."
Meanwhile, the spring weather proved to be inconsistent in other parts of the country, particularly on the West Coast.
"Early in February and March, it rained several consecutive weekends," said Doug Wheat, president of Hauser's Patio & Rattan in San Diego. "We never got a good hot streak in February or March, which can add three or four weeks to the buying season."
But temperatures certainly warmed up for him and everyone else this summer.
TOO HOT TO HANDLE
The good news of a warm spring was replaced by troubling reports of a blazing hot summer. According to the NOAA, July was the hottest month in U.S. history, averaging 77.6 degrees. The last time July was that hot, the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression and the lower Plains had eroded into the Dust Bowl.
Larssen said the warm spring and hot summer conspired against her. While no one wanted to sit outside, she noticed people were using their screened-in porches, where all that deep seating was supposed to be sold in the spring. But the extreme heat made them reticent to buy at all.
Retailers in the Great Lakes region said they saw their sales drop off considerably because of the summer heat. But few regions had it worse than the Great Plains.
"We had roughly three weeks of sustained 100-plusdegree temperatures and hit a new record for less than a tenth of an inch of rain for July," said Gould. "You can imagine what that does to your lawn and your mental outlook. It puts the brakes on outdoor activities and traffic just drops."
Gould said Nebraska continued to suffer through temperatures over 100 degrees into August, yet his overall sales for the year were still ahead of 2011. In fact, most retailers agreed that the heat didn't negate the gains they enjoyed from the spring. And the spring is the season that counts for most retailers.
"A lot of people were staying inside in July, but I think you see that every year," Kapp said. "It's that in-between period. It's the middle of the summer, it's hot and people are on vacation and waiting for the after-season sales to start."
Most retailers hold out hope for the fall to be as mild as the spring.
"When you have a decent fall, you can get definitely extend your season here," said Larssen. "So we're planning on leaving that [deep seating] out, if only to plant seeds in our customers' heads."
And if the weather doesn't cooperate?
"You have to have the long perspective on it," Larssen said. "Everything sells eventually."
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