Duracell employees hand out batteries, provide chargers, in New Jersey. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)For every season—or weather disaster—there is a time. On Monday, when Superstorm Sandy tore through the East Coast, tragically destroying homes, towns and lives in its path, it was the time for retailers to step up or shut up.
Fashion retailers capitalize on Hurricane Sandy too soon.
As Yahoo! Shine first reported on Monday, many major fashion brands did neither. Instead they bombarded email inboxes and Twitter feeds with updates on storm-themed sales and links to their online outlets, encouraging customers to shop the storm away indoors.
First thing Monday morning, Urban Outfitters sent an email blast about free shipping during "Frankenstorm" (discount code: all soggy). "This is an insult!" wrote one commenter amidst the chorus of complaints on company's Facebook page. "I finally to work got to work today after having no power for 3+ days, no heat...and my friends and family all suffering from the storm. The last thing anyone wants to do is see an insulting ad like this."
Urban Outfitters did not respond to Yahoo! Shine's request for comment by press time, but they seemed to have moved on. For proof, see the picture of the pug dressed as a dinosaur posted on their Facebook page Wednesday.
Other retailers criticized for promoting storm sales were a little more humbled about their fashion faux-pas. After American Apparel blasted an insensitive email ad about a "Sandy Sale" for customers in the hardest hit areas on Monday evening, they issued their own mea culpa.
"Of course we'd never mean to offend anyone and when we put the email out yesterday it came from a good place," a spokesperson for American Apparel told the website Fashionista.com on Tuesday. "People forget how expensive it is to run a Made in USA brand like American Apparel and if we made a mistake here it came from the good place of trying to keep the machine going-for the sake of our employees and stakeholders."
How to help victims of Hurricane Sandy
With a rising death toll and months of recovery ahead, sympathy for clothing brands is at an all time low. One particularly outraged Twitter user put it this way: "Hey @americanapparel people have died and others are in need. Shut up about your #Sandy sale."
Gap had some backtracking of it's own to do after "checking in" on Foursquare to the "Frankenstorm Apocalypse" and urging customers to do "lots of Gap.com shopping," on Monday.
In an apology on Twitter they explained, "To all impacted by #Sandy, stay safe. Our check-in and tweet earlier were only meant to remind all to keep safe and indoors."
Barneys, the luxury department, also issued an about-face that was slightly lacking. After getting flack from Shine and Twitter users over a tweet "recommend[ing] browsing Barneys.com and staying inside," they issued a more tender, but self-serving, follow-up.
Heartbreaking images in aftermath of superstorm
"We're happy to be re-opening our Madison Avenue store today, but our hearts are with all those affected by the storm. Lots of love to all!"
Jonathan Adler the home decorating retailer that sells pillows for $100, also regretted chasing customers during the storm on Monday. After their initial tweet, "Storm our website: enter SANDY for free shipping" they received some harsh words from followers. "Bad Show!," tweeted a follower. "Instead of capitalizing on tragedy donate home furnishings to everyone affected."
Shortly thereafter, the brand changed their discount code from Sandy to "Stuck Inside" and issued an apology, explaining the "intention was to do something nice for those inside." They did not, however appear to donate any pillows.
If Adler and his customer-hungry cohorts were short on help, many other major customers earned big points during the storm.
Some of the unsung heroes (or brilliant brand opportunists depending on your cynical meter) stepped up to provide customers what they really needed in a time of true hell and high water. Duracell dispatched a "rapid responder" truck to New York City passing out free batteries for flashlights, as well as access to mobile device charging stations.
Information during and after the storm was key: Wall Street Journal and the New York Times temporarily provided complete access for non-subscribers to their site, in order to deliver up-to-the-minute coverage to those in need of information. Comcast, the Internet provider, also pitched in providing both subscribers and non-subscribers in the storm's path temporary free Internet access at local hotspots.
American Express emailed its card-members immediately, offering those "in the area impacted emergency financial, medical, and travel assistance." Another good deed came by way of JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company waived late-payment fees for customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile Walmart's staff "kicked into emergency mode" the day before the storm and shipped 7,000 more generators and bulk packages of bottled water to Northeast branches after their shelves had been cleaned out by customers. By Tuesday morning, employees from the Tri-State area convened at a New Jersey superstore-in one of the hardest hit regions-in order to open their doors at 7.a.m for customers desperate for essentials. And for those Sandy evacuees separated from their property, U-Haul has offered 30 days of free storage to protect and consolidate their belongings.
If there's anything to be learned by retailers from this week's terrifying weather disaster, it's that discounts aren't the same as a helping hand. Or in the words of that brilliant Twitter user: "Shut up about your #Sandy sale."