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Here's what it's like to be a home improvement retailer in the midst of a hurricane

Key Points
  • During severe storms, many home improvement chains open "command centers" to run operations.
  • Illinois-based Ace Hardware operates 70 stores in Texas and about 200 in Florida, both states that were recently impacted by hurricanes.
  • The company was seen preparing weeks in advance for the catastrophes.
Inside Home Depot's disaster command center

A week and a half before Hurricane Irma slammed Florida, delivering a deadly blow to the Southeast, Ace Hardware was stocking its stores across the states with ample supplies of propane, gloves and boots, and power cords — items shoppers would surely be looking for after the storm had passed.

Preparation is key for home improvement retailers in the midst of such natural disasters.

Home Depot and Lowe's began shipping emergency supplies to Florida in anticipation of Irma in the days leading up to the storm, while they continued cleaning up from Hurricane Harvey, which came ashore in Texas just days before.

It's a costly process, but analysts have said that investments in logistics and the supply chain by home improvement retailers during a weather-related disaster typically bring in around 10 to 15 times more in sales.

Illinois-based Ace Hardware, which operates 70 stores in Texas and about 200 in Florida, was not so much scrambling on news of when the damage would be done, but reacted by pushing extra shipments to its stores in the hurricanes' paths.

"We have an inventory planning group that was pushing inventory to distribution centers; a merchandise group of people keeping vendors in tune to what is happening," Tom Molleur, Ace's vice president of retail support, told CNBC. "We have two different traffic teams — monitoring our trucks, looking at road closures."

Spread sheets were being compiled listing all of Ace's stores, along with any damage done to the locations. And constant updates were being relayed both to employees and shoppers through social media.

If it sounds like military operations, it was. Ace calls it the "command center."

Storm Command Center at Ace’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.
Source: Ace Hardware Corp.

"It's best to have one central point of communication, or control room, that can clearly disseminate information," Richard Howells, global vice president of digital supply chain and IoT at SAP, told CNBC.

"This is something that can be practiced throughout the year, so when natural disasters or other obstacles surface, the communication necessary to handle these issues is already in place," he added. "Further, it's often to best to have a designated individual responsible for disaster relief programs, who can ensure that all parties are on the same page."

Home Depot and Lowe's both activated similar command centers of their own, in adherence to the precedence set during prior storms.

Planning for a storm like Irma should include keeping an eye on all boats, tankers, planes and trains carrying a retailer's goods, Howells said. Being able to trace inventory so that a company can reroute shipments and redistribute items to the "neediest" of its locations both pre- and post-storm is key, he added. "Rerouting shipments to the most needy areas can have a huge impact to safety and morale."

Throughout an entire storm, though moving product is important, people remain top of mind for Ace.

"The biggest challenge in reopening is staffing," Michael Wynn, president of a chain of seven Ace stores in southwest Florida, told CNBC. "With a Category 5 storm beating down on us, a lot of the people who have worked with us for a number of years had to be pulled away to help family members."

Members of Ace's corporate team traveled to Florida after Irma to assist in getting stores back open. This allowed employees to take care of themselves before worrying about returning to work.

"The thing I think about when I'm running an operation like this ... this is something that can never be replaced," Wynn said about the threat of Amazon encroaching on everyone's business. "No matter how sophisticated or how much Amazon grows. ... There will always be a place for the local retailer."

People purchase plywood at The Home Depot as they prepare for Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017 in Miami, Florida. It's still too early to know where the direct impact of the hurricane will take place but the state of Florida is in the area of possible landfall.
Getty Images

In the aftermath of Irma, generators, power cords and tarps have been flying out the doors at Ace stores, the company said.

For all of retail, a surge in spending on supplies ahead of the storm could be offset by the decline in spending immediately afterward. But it all tends to level out.

"For smaller retailers in particular, like a mom and pop home improvement store, these surges in sales can be especially impactful," SAP's Howells told CNBC.

"While it can be more difficult for these smaller stores to initiate the supply chain management and demand planning processes needed to keep up with demand during storms, those that are able to do it will find this is a great opportunity to grow their customer base and reap the financial benefits."

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