Whether It’s Hot or Cold, Retailers Blame Weather for Sales Woes

After blaming the Polar Vortex’s chill for sluggish results last winter, U.S. retailers now say warm temperatures in October hurt sales of boots and sweaters.

Some retail analysts aren’t buying it.

“It’s usually one of those ‘dog ate my homework’ excuses,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research Inc. “Whenever something can’t be explained and is an anomaly -- and it happens to coincide with an unusual weather pattern -- that becomes the reason people supposedly didn’t shop.”

In earnings calls this week, J.C. Penney Co., Macy’s Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. all blamed warmer temperatures in October for disappointing sales. The average temperature across the U.S. was 56.2 degrees Fahrenheit last month (13 degrees Celsius), up from 53.5 in 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence.

“Cold weather obviously drives people to the store,” said Kevin Mansell, the chief executive officer of Kohl’s. After temperatures cooled in November, sales have rebounded, he said. “The first two weeks of this month have spiked dramatically.”

Still, NPD Group Inc. analyst Marshal Cohen said the warm temperatures were less of a factor than generally weak demand. Retailers lack a buzzy must-have fashion trend that can drive customers to stores, he said.

Nothing New?

“Without an exciting product in the marketplace, the consumer doesn’t have any reason to go out and shop,” said Cohen, whose research firm is based in Port Washington, New York. “There’s nothing new and exciting.”

Retailers say there’s a undeniable connection between weather and sales. And because winter boots cost more than regular shoes, the impact can be clearly felt.

“When you’re not selling boots, it’s going to hurt your business,” Karen Hoguet, Macy’s chief financial officer, said during a conference call yesterday.

Last winter, the complaints focused on the cold. Gap Inc., the biggest U.S. retailer focused on apparel, was forced to close more than 450 stores for at least one day in February, and sales at stores open at least a year were down 7 percent in that month.

Macy’s shut 244 stores for at least part of January, prompting CEO Terry Lundgren to say it was “one of the most difficult months I’ve ever had in my career.”

Cohen said he’s more sympathetic when there’s a major blizzard on a key shopping day, rather than just a subtle temperature change. Even then, it’s important to remember that the U.S. is a big country with lots of different weather patterns.

“A national retailer has a really hard time convincing me that bad weather somewhere destroyed their Christmas season,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”