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CE Dealers Shed Light On Blackout

9/01/2003 02:00:00 AM Eastern

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Like many of the estimated 50 million people affected by last month's power outage throughout much of the Northeast, area CE retailers remained calm and collected during the blackout, if not necessarily cool.

Indeed, many merchants wound up performing a public service for their communities by staying open long after the lights went out to sell desperately needed commodity items like flashlights, batteries, corded phones and portable TVs and radios.

Conversely, consumers responded in kind by refraining from hoarding, retailers said, and limiting any looting to Ottawa, Canada.

Still, the loss of regular business took a significant toll on revenue, the dimension of which was still being assessed at press time as thousands of hand-written tickets were being tallied. Also unclear is whether retailers and other businesses could eventually be compensated for at least a portion of their losses through the state or federal governments, the utilities or via the courts.

"It's tough to assign a dollar figure to the lost volume, although I'd guess it's between $4 million and $5 million," said Gregg Richard, VP/merchandising of New York metro area big box chain P.C. Richard & Son. "We were expecting some big days for air conditioners due to the heat, and operationally you get all backed up because we couldn't do any deliveries, which normally number 2,000 a day." The company was "still playing catch up" five days after the event, he said.

"It's like a blizzard. It's hard to make up the lost opportunity," he noted.

Richard said power was restored in most of the chain's 44 stores by the second evening of the blackout. During the interim, managers set up shop in store lobbies and entranceway foyers, where they sold batteries, corded phones and transistor radios to news- and power-starved customers.

At RadioShack, which had more than 500 stores in the dark, the company's logistics and operations division immediately entered emergency mode following word of the blackout. Within hours, tractor trailer loads of batteries, radios and other "basic need products" were leaving the chain's Maryland distribution center for points north, a spokesman said.

Most of the affected RadioShack locations remained operational throughout the long weekend, and were often the only neighborhood stores open. Managers set up shop on sidewalk tables "to make it clear we were open," the spokesman said, and tickets were processed by hand. District reps and other field support personnel "rolled up their sleeves" and pitched in to ensure that manpower was evenly dispersed during the outage and that emergency deliveries were getting through.

"It was a wash for sales," the spokesman said, "but we were there to help the customer. Perhaps they'll remember us when they need a [higher-margin entertainment] product."

For Circuit City, 65 stores lost electricity on the first day of the outage, although by Friday morning all but 23 units — primarily in Michigan and the New York metro area — had their power restored. Those units came back online at various times during the second and third days of the blackout, and as power resumed, the stores reopened, a spokesman said.

No incidences of looting or vandalism at Circuit City were reported. "The stores have emergency procedures and policies in place to protect customers and our associates," the spokesman said.