Retailers Struggled With This Weirdly Warm Winter

Estimated read time 3 min read

From December of last year to this February, the US experienced the warmest “meteorological winter” on record, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said last week.

February alone saw everything from drought, to a wildfire, to a tornado, to a shocking lack of ice covering Midwestern lakes. The season was also the third-warmest February in NOAA’s 130-year history.

High temps also contributed to one of the wettest winters ever, with heavier-than-normal rain and snowfall in parts of the US, NOAA said.

But this is a business story.

The unseasonable weather further complicated what is already a somewhat unpredictable period in the retail sales calendar.

“Q4 is the most weather-dependent,” Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Lauren Hobart told investors in November. “We like cold, so I’m hoping for a snowy Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

For Dick’s, warmer weather means that sales skew toward lightweight fleeces rather than pricier down parkas, she said.

Hobart’s hopes didn’t really pan out.

In fact, the warm winter was yet another weird season in what Tractor Supply Co. CEO Hal Lawton called “one of the worst setups, every month and every quarter of last year” in terms of favorable weather.

In other words, the weather has been so unpredictable over the past year, Lawton isn’t bothering with so much weather-related financial guidance this year.

“I think we played too much weather forecaster last year and are going to get out of that business,” he said last week at the Raymond James Institutional Investors Conference.

Lowe’s saw a lift from the milder conditions as DIY customers stocked up for home projects, but CEO Marvin Ellison said sales fell off in January when the mercury dropped below normal levels and kept shoppers from stores for a period.

Now the home improvement retailer is welcoming “early signs of spring,” head of merchandising Bill Boltz said, when customers load up on lawn and garden supplies.

Meanwhile, 2024 notched its first “billion-dollar disaster” in January due to an East Coast storm and southern tornado outbreak that affected over a dozen states.

In the upper Midwest, where the highest differences were recorded, Wisconsin’s governor issued an emergency declaration for small businesses in the northern part of the state that have lost tourism and other revenue due to the lack of snow and ice this year.

Ski areas across the US also faced low amounts of fresh snow, undoubtedly crimping sales at pro shops and related businesses. A retailer in South Dakota surveyed by the Federal Reserve said that even though the warmer weather led to higher foot traffic, sales of winter gear and equipment fell.

From major complications to minor inconveniences, it’s looking like this winter could be a preview of what’s to come thanks to the climate crisis.

More than half of the world’s population “experienced at least one day of temperatures that would be virtually impossible without the influence of carbon pollution,” according to a report from Climate Central, a policy-neutral organization.

Businesses generally aim for predictability wherever they can get it, but a warming planet is likely to give them continued challenges.