In past natural disasters, it made for interesting reading to see how Home Depot, WalMart, Lowes, and others, swung into action to deliver water, generators, wood, batteries, and so much more, even as FEMA bureaucrats ordered people around and otherwise did very little by way of helping actual people.
With Sandy, I’ve seen far fewer stories of this sort of thing going on, so far. I’ve puzzled why. Did FEMA do a good job this time? Did the big box companies fall down on the job? On the contrary, what happened is something I would not have anticipated. The retailers learned their lessons from past experiences and have figured out how to redirect massive resources to storm preparation in the areas likely to be affected. By acting ahead of time, they were able to get essential goods to consumers before the disaster. This is so advanced that government could not have even thought of it.
The Wall Street Journal reports that WalMart:
staffed up an emergency operations center at its headquarters last Thursday and began routing shipments of goods to 10 disaster distribution centers along the storm’s projected path. As the storm clears, Wal-Mart will dispatch trucks from the disaster warehouses to stores in the areas hit by the storm.
Meanwhile, big box home improvement chains Home Depot, Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. are rolling truckloads of supplies to stores in the storm zone.
Home Depot tells the WSJ’s Banjo that they learned some lessons from their experiences during the East Coast’s last brush with a tropical storm.
The company pre-loaded trucks with supplies and sent the trucks to locations in New Jersey, New York and Maryland before the storm. Last year, when the East Coast was threatened by Hurricane Irene, Home Depot shipped goods to distribution centers as far away as Virginia.
“The big difference is the speed we are able to deliver products to the market,” said Aaron Flowe, president of Home Depot’s Northern Division. “We started sending trucks into stores at 6 a.m. this morning”
Home Depot said it was able to get 1500 truckloads of water, flashlights, generators and other supplies to stores at a much faster pace than it was able to during last year’s Hurricane Irene because of operational changes to how it transported supplies.
Even so, preparations are never perfect, so starting the morning after, the stores deployed more. “Home Depot said it has roughly 100 truckloads of post-storm merchandise out on the roads with about 650 on hand and in the process of moving out,” reports a second piece in the Wall Street Journal. “Lowe’s said hundreds of truckloads of emergency-relief supplies are being distributed to stores across the affected areas.”
Why do the big box stores do this? A cynic would snarl: profit!
Well, profit plays a role for sure. Profits are better than losses. Profits indicate that resources are being used well, that a company is doing the right thing. It is a sign and signal of success. Profit permits companies to pay workers and stockholders. It allows expansion. It confirms that a company is on the right course. All of this is true, but it still doesn’t fully explain the question of why. I have no problem in answering the obvious answer: because it is wonderful to help people. It is even more wonderful to help people in a way that is economically sustainable and progressive. The profit signal shows the way toward helping others and doing the right thing from an economic point of view.