Who isn't blaming the weather at this point?

Wal-Mart says the 'W' word 20 times in its quarterly commentary. Other companies aren't far behind.

By MSN Money Partner May 22, 2014 1:47PM
Caption: A UPS worker makes deliveries during a snow storm on February 5, 2014 in Burlington, Vermont
Credit: © Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesBy John Kell, Fortune

Executives at some of the top U.S. retailers have leaned on a familiar scapegoat as they unpack why first-quarter sales have broadly missed Wall Street's expectations: bad weather.

And how many times have they complained about the weather this quarter? A lot, according to an analysis of their conference calls.

Wal-Mart (WMT) executives said the word "weather" 20 times in their prepared management commentary for the fiscal first quarter, one of the highest counts among major retailers that have so far reported results. 

The retail giant said unseasonably cold and disruptive winter weather hurt U.S. sales and drove expenses higher than expected. Sales increased later in the quarter -- a comment many retailers have since echoed.

The word "weather" was also spoken 19 times by Home Depot (HD) executives, 21 times by executives at Lowe's (LOW), and 17 times by Macy's (M). Each of those retailers joined Wal-Mart in reporting first-quarter sales that fell short of Wall Street's expectations.

Retailers are notorious for blaming disappointing sales on weather fluctuations. In any given year, it can be too cold, too hot, or even too wet, to reach expectations.

"Many retailers, more so today than in years past, seem to be using weather as a culprit for missing revenue and same-store sales targets," said Alan Rifkin, senior retail analyst at Barclays Bank PLC.

Home Depot Chief Financial Officer Carol Tome told Fortune the home-improvement retailer conducts a "deep, deep analytical review" to forecast weather. But those models cannot always be relied on.

"I am getting convinced we should just pull out the Farmer's Almanac," Tome said. "It is really hard to predict what is going to happen."

Home Depot in recent years has invested in its supply chain, in part to better manage inventory when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate. While storms frequently slammed much of the Northeast and other regions in the U.S. this winter, Tome said Home Depot still kept salt in stock.

Analysts and investors listening to retail conference calls may grow a bit tired of the weather blame game, though government data show this winter was a rough one. The 2013-2014 winter ranked the ninth driest and the 34th coldest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Midwest was hit particularly hard as it was one of the coldest on record in several states in that region.

"This is the first time weather has been a factor for six to seven months," said Ron Friedman, a consumer products consultant for accounting and advisory firm Marcum LLP.

Retailers buy inventory months in advance, and thus have limited flexibility to respond to weather fluctuations. Friedman said Home Depot, Lowe's and Staples (SPLS) are among the retailers that are better positioned when the weather is poor. According to Friedman, those retailers can use a system known as "rapid replenishment," a process that allows them to place orders as needed from suppliers for basic items such as lawn mowers, shovels and office supplies.

The weather woes this quarter are masking an even bigger issue: weak traffic. Traffic has been problematic as more customers shop online, and many analysts say brick-and-mortar retailers will continue to lose market share to online purveyors. Research and advisory firm Forrester Research said U.S. online retail sales accounted for almost 9 percent of the $3.2 trillion total U.S. retail sales last year, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 10 percent through 2018. That growth will easily outpace the performance at physical stores, which generally mirrors gross domestic product growth.

However, not all retailers are blaming the weather. Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS) stood out this quarter for its refusal to blame the weather after it issued a disappointing quarterly report that sent its share price down nearly 18 percent in one day.

Instead, Chief Executive Ed Stack called out a poor performance from the company's golf business, which has been hurt by a glut of inventory, drastic discounting, and new technology that hasn't resonated with golfers.

"We didn't want it to look like we were hiding behind the weather," Stack said.

More from Fortune

May 22, 2014 2:20PM

the .1% GDP number is really worse, expect it to be downgraded to -.5 to -1.7% when all is said and done.   Weather didn't effect GDP by more than 1.2%.   The biggest drop was in exports, hardly effected by the weather.  The second biggest component was inventory build declined because inventory was building up and not moving.  The main reason the inventory build didn't happen was weak sales projections for the 2nd and 3rd quarters.

It is likely if we had summer weather all winter long GDP would be near zero.   The President's cheer leaders all were predicting 3.3% growth in the 1st quarter.  We will be lucky to hit 2% for the entire year.  From the numbers in Barron's, we will be lucky to hit 1.8%.   The Obamacare and other tax increases clearly are slowing the economy.

May 23, 2014 12:11PM
When you are grossly incompetent you blame the weather when in reality, you SUCK in your glass ceiling role. How sad is it that the once-greatest nation on Earth is being taken down by garbage alumni in administrative roles. RESTORE COMPETENCE. 
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