Power Outages Hobble Florida Dealers

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Hollywood, Fla. — South Florida retailers are reporting little structural damage from Hurricane Wilma, which sliced across the peninsula on Monday. But widespread power outages, and shortages of water and fuel on the East Coast, continue to effect millions of residents, keeping stores closed and customers away.

Indeed, nearly one-third of southwest Florida and two-thirds of southeast Florida were without electricity as of this morning, and Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest power supplier, said it will be four more weeks before service is fully restored.

But unlike the aftermath of Katrina, a strong police presence has limited looting to a few isolated incidents, retailers reported, despite the loss of security alarms.

Among CE chains affected by Wilma, Best Buy said nine locations remained closed as of this morning, including stores in Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale, and its distribution and service centers in Miami. The company is providing accommodations for displaced employees in Coral Gables and Hialeah, although 20 percent of area associates are still unaccounted for.

Circuit City said 10 of its regional stores were initially closed due to power outages, with two locations reopening yesterday. All of its area employees are safe, a spokeswoman told TWICE.

Wal-Mart reported 11 stores closed as of this morning, and has delivered 24 truckloads of water and ice to impacted areas.

Thirteen of Tweeter Home Entertainment Group’s two dozen Sound Advice stores were initially shut due to power outages, along with its corporate office and distribution and in-home installation centers. Four stores reopened today, including its Naples, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach locations, a spokeswoman said. Damage was negligible, and regional managers are relocating displaced employees and providing work in unaffected stores.

BrandsMart USA, which operates five megastores in southeast Florida, was opened for business one day after Wilma struck, thanks to power generators and reinforced structures designed to withstand direct hits from Category 3 storms. The problem, said president/CEO Michael Perlman, is a lack of gasoline, electricity and, at least for the first two days, running water. “There hasn’t been much business,” he said, although he expects the company to more than make up the loss through replacement sales as insurance checks are issued over the coming months.

Similarly, Chris Riching, sales VP at Bill Smith, an eight-store premium CE and majap chain based in Fort Myers, expects to “make up lost business and then some” due to “the post-Charlie bounce.” The effect describes consumer behavior after last year’s more devastating Hurricane Charlie, when discretionary purchases grew significantly.

“Part of it is pent-up demand, but part of it is also a reward purchase,” said Riching, who is already seeing brisk sales of flat-panel displays, DLP TVs and high-end appliances at his stores. The business was temporarily closed due to mandatory evacuations and power outages, but all locations were open for business today.

BrandsMart’s Perlman observed similar behavior the night after the storm, when a customer emerged from the Dade County darkness to purchase a pair of plasma TVs. “He said, ‘The power’s got to come back on eventually.’”


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