NEW YORK — Battered by hurricanes and other storms that wiped out billions of dollars in sales last year, retailers are using different strategies this season to protect stores, employees and consumers.

Tactics vary from relying on sophisticated weather-tracking and inventory-management software to simply battening down the hatches and riding out the wind, rain and flooding. One mall operator is even installing protective netting to minimize damage from flying debris. The task is particularly challenging because of the unpredictable nature of severe weather.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot are increasingly using computer software that tracks how and when consumers shop through weather changes, said Paul Walsh, a senior business meteorologist at weather forecasting firm Planalytics of Wayne, Pa. This enables them to take precautions such as reducing staffing levels in stores that are in the path of a storm, as well as managing inventory.

Wal-Mart Stores, Lowe’s and Home Depot are among the retailers that shoppers tend to flock to before a storm to stock up on necessities such as food and bottled water, as well as plywood and duct tape to protect windows and doors. Likewise, after a storm, home repair items are in high demand.

“Lost sales [of non-discretionary items such as apparel] in front of a hurricane are not easily regained,” Walsh said.

Many stores in New Orleans, including Saks Fifth Avenue, and in other parts of the Gulf Coast that were devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year have struggled to rebuild because of the severity of the damage. There were 27 named storms — including 15 hurricanes — in 2005, breaking the record of 19 named storms in 1944. The severe weather caused at least $2 billion in sales losses, according to research firm ShopperTrak.

The primary focus of the storm response plan for Macy’s Florida, a division of Federated Department Stores, is to keep customers and sales associates safe, as well as protect stores from damage, said Melissa Goff, director of public relations.

The retailer periodically upgrades and rehearses its response plan. Macy’s Florida has an internal Emergency Opera­tions Committee that works closely with associates and manage­ment to relay important information efficiently through an emergency notification system. The plan also involves store Community Emergency Response Teams, which are certified by the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue department. The CERTs assess damage and make sure employees are accounted for after a storm hits.

This story first appeared in the July 27, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Macy’s also subscribes to HurrTrak, a software program that transmits storm tracking data from the National Hurri­cane Center. “Anytime we see something brewing, we implement the plan,” Goff said.

At Miami Beach’s Bal Harbour Mall, the response plan will soon include protective netting to cover the mall. The netting is now being installed. It is made by Texas-based Hendee Corp. and is designed to lessen the impact of winds as high as 155 m.p.h.

“It will act as an envelope, covering the roof of the mall and all windows and doors, preventing debris and damage to the inside of the mall,” said Gary Karlson, construction coordinator at Bal Harbour.

Stein Mart, the off-price, 262-store specialty chain that has a high percentage of its stores in the Southeast, tries to ride out the impact of storms and reopen quickly after they pass. The retailer closed 18 units when Katrina struck. All have since reopened. In fact, most were operating the week following the storm, according to Mike Ray, senior vice president of store operations.

“These stores are doing quite well, and we have even increased our inventory,” Ray said. “When we reopened, traffic was mild, but we felt it was important to reopen as quickly as possible to get reestablished.”

Once consumers saw Stein Mart was back for business, there was a dramatic improvement in the sales of apparel items such as socks, T-shirts, underwear, lingerie, shoes and slippers, Ray said.

“Retailers are being more attentive’’ to the vagaries of severe weather, said Jim Martin, vice president of information products at ShopperTrak. “You see a run-up of traffic before the storm, so retailers need to pay attention to proper staffing and education in how to sell products.’’

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