January 6, 2014, 4:27 PM

E-retailers trudge through extreme weather

Carriers suspended deliveries across nearly 200 ZIP codes in the U.S. because of travel restrictions related to inclement weather. Several e-retailers contacted by Internet Retailer said they are taking steps to minimize the impact of the weather-related service interruptions.

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With temperatures far below zero and up to a foot or more of fresh, wind-blown snow resulting in travel restrictions in some areas, hundreds of ZIP codes across four Midwestern states went without regular pickup and delivery services today by major shipping carriers.

United Parcel Service of America Inc., the most common shipping carrier listed by retailers in the Internet Retailer Top 1000, notes on its web  site today that because of “unavoidable services delays” it was not offering pickup and delivery service in 189 ZIP codes across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. FedEx Corp., ranked second among carriers listed in the Top 1000, also says it suspended regular services across those same states, without listing the ZIP codes. The U.S. Postal Service, ranked third among carriers listed in the Top 1000, did not issue a similar report about suspension of service in the Midwest, but issued a Jan. 3 notice about service disruptions in several areas of Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania that was still posted today as a service alert on its web site.

The service disruptions resulted in notices retailers sent to customers, such this one that Amazon.com Inc. sent to a shopper in Chicago on Jan. 7: “We’re writing about the order you placed on Jan. 3, 2014 … we wanted to let you know that your package may not arrive on time due to extreme weather conditions … UPS will deliver the package as soon as possible. We are sorry for this unavoidable delay and we appreciate your patience.”

Web retailers contacted by Internet Retailer, however, say they’re trying to minimize the impact of these weather-related interruptions. In Rochester Hills, MI, a northern suburb of Detroit, Aleva Health, a multichannel retailer of health care and exercise products, is dealing with expected delivery delays of from one to three days this week because of the service disruptions at UPS and FedEx, president and CEO Derek Gaskins says.

Nonetheless, he adds, he expects to keep those delays to a minimum, with nearly all of his employees having made it into work today to keep customers' orders ready to ship. “While not everyone could dig out from the snowstorm, over 90% of our employees fought the snow and made their way in this morning,” he says. Gaskins adds that the length of expected delays of most orders has not warranted contacting customers about delayed deliveries.

Fathead LLC, a Detroit-based web retailer of life-size wall graphics, experienced only “minor shipping delays” in cold-affected areas, says Michael Layne, director of Internet marketing.

In eastern Pennsylvania, which is also dealing with extreme winter weather, mass merchant Ozbo.com is also taking steps to minimize any service disruptions caused by the weather. To keep its fulfillment center operating without interruption, Ozbo maintains alternate emergency power and heating systems, redundant connections to the Internet, and a workforce located within a few miles of its facilities, says co-founder Joshua Wood. That enables the retailer to ship many orders within a day of receiving an order, even during inclement weather, Wood says. Although Ozbo has taken longer to deliver items to some customers this week, “the customers that have been affected have been very understanding” because of Ozbo’s reputation for usually fast fulfillment, he adds.

In the Chicago suburb  of Bollingbrook, IL, Power Equipment Direct, which sells snowblowers, power generators and other power tools often in high demand during inclement weather, experienced some delays of up to two days in some areas affected by snow, ice and cold temperatures, but sales continued at their usual strong rate for this time of year, says Derek Vore, a marketing specialist at the retailer. He adds that Power Equipment Direct continued to post blogs offering advice about dealing with cold weather and choosing and operating snowblowers.

In Wisconsin, pet supplies retailer Drs. Foster & Smith Inc. managed to escape any shipping delays and maintained sales with marketing pitches such as an e-mail sent Saturday offering “Winter-Smart Strategies” for keeping dogs warm outside in cold winter weather. “Open rates, click-through rates and sales were on par with other e-mails this time of year,” says Gordon Magee, Internet marketing and media manager.

But retailers also say they’re gearing up for what could be a long week ahead of bad weather. “So far, so good, here at Summit Sports,” which operates Skis.com and other outdoor sports gear sites, says Andy Schepper, vice president of operations, where recent snowfall has driven up sales of skis and other winter gear. “I think today and tomorrow will be the real test for UPS and other carriers.”

Meantime, Summit and other retailers are also eyeing the cold, snowy weather as a source of sales. Aleva has seen unusually strong sales in recent days on SockAddict.com and its winter sports site Trekt.com, which Gaskins attributes to the freezing weather.

Schepper adds that Summit will wait until the worst of the weather calms down later this week before actively marketing cold-weather products. “We felt the weather was potentially going to be a little too extreme with the cold temps to use it as a marketing tool,” he says, adding: “We may do an e-mail later this week about staying warm by dressing right.”

Ozbo.com is No. 450 and Aleva Health No. 486 in the Internet Retailer Top 500. Summit is No. 538 in the Internet Retailer Second 500. The two lists together make up the Internet Retailer Top 1000.

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