The Forecast Calls For Unpredictability

Here we are, flush into the busy first-quarter trade show season and trying to forecast the business climate over the next several months, talking about the weather again.

The past couple of years it was all about dire-sounding polar vortexes churning up extraordinarily cold snaps that sapped the shopping spirit.

Now all we hear about is how that dastardly El Niño keeps battering the West Coast while the Northeast basks in a balmy winter respite. And nobody is in the mood to shop.

Perfect Storm

It’s the perfect storm yet again— unseasonable conditions in the face of a generally cautious consumer base— for many retailers and vendors crying foul on foul weather as they release tepid holiday sales results against headwinds to start the year.

We have become conditioned to expect weather to be cited as retail enemy No. 1 (or is it excuse number 1?) on analyst calls and in annual reports when sales aren’t quite bright enough. 

As if someday, somewhere over the rainbow perhaps, the stars and the moon will align for a rare stretch of flawless shopping weather needed to soak up every last discretionary consumer dollar. As if retailers will emerge from their collective hutch one day to a view other than a shadow that threatens to postpone blossoming business for a few more weeks.  

There is no perfect season anymore. It’s too cold or too hot; too wet or too dry; too calm or too windy; too cloudy or too sunny. 

Daily Turbulence

It’s one thing to bank the fourth quarter on a meteorological dice roll; and it’s quite another to build a loyal business connection with customers (trade and consumer) that can withstand the daily turbulence of a reluctant economy, global unrest, antagonistic politics, the shakeup of traditional retailing and all the other factors contributing to so much uncertainty. 

That is a complex challenge that requires unprecedented insight and flexibility to counter the inevitable inaccuracies of even the most advanced sales forecasting methodologies. Crossing your fingers in the hope a Nor’easter will drift harmlessly out to sea before a key shopping weekend is not the long-term answer.

The unusually warm weather early this winter might not be merely a convenient scapegoat for all those coats and sweaters on the clearance racks. It might be a legitimate reason to help explain softer overall store traffic during the holidays that shortchanged a slew of categories, including housewares. 

Nobody wants to make excuses, though. 

Encouraging Sign

Retailers and vendors entered this busy show season with optimism. That is an encouraging sign. It’s no less encouraging that many remain grounded in their optimism as they work to be better prepared to ride out what has become the most predictable tempest in today’s business climate: Unpredictability.

It figures a late January storm dumping more than a foot of snow on the Northeast was possible as this is being written. Possible. 

Meteorologists generally get to keep their jobs when their forecasts turn out to be totally wrong. People in this business aren’t always that fortunate.