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Scorchers Set Off Scramble

Retailers try to keep up with demand as hot weather catches some by surprise

By Becky Yerak
Tribune Staff Reporter
Published June 25, 2005

With Chicago summers being on the mild side in recent years, retailer Mike Abt was beginning to think there was no way in Hades that air conditioners would be a hot commodity again.

"It has been five or six years since the last heat wave," said the president of Abt Electronics. "Selling air conditioners has not been the best thing."

But so far this year, sales of air conditioners at the Glenview retailer have doubled from the same period in 2004. "Now we're struggling to make sure we have enough," Abt said.

Indeed, it's a good time to be selling air conditioners, fans and other seasonal products.

Temperatures in Chicago Thursday reached their highest levels since 2003, and Friday's high was 96 degrees, one short of the 1988 record for the date. For much of the next week, temperatures are expected to remain in the 90s.

In recent summers, some merchants found themselves getting burned when they carried too much hot-weather gear. And in May, some chain stores blamed unseasonably cool temperatures for tepid sales of seasonal goods.

But with the weather seeming to transition from winter into summer, retailers are benefiting from pent-up demand for everything from lightweight apparel to air conditioners.

"We think the weather is driving pretty significant consumer activity for summer goods compared to last June, which was relatively cool," said Paul Walsh, senior retail meteorologist for Planalytics Inc., which advises companies on how the weather will affect their business.

"We've already sold double the amount of fans this month than we did last year at this time," said Paula Erickson, spokeswoman for Oak Brook-based cooperative Ace Hardware.

Abt is hoping that its current inventory will get it through much of the summer.

Manufacturers won't be gearing up for more production until August, he noted. That's a risky time to order more product. "Retailers don't like to order air conditioners in August," Abt said. "If there's no more hot weather, you're stuck with them."

In recent years, "all of us had carryover, so a lot of retailers aren't carrying as many air conditioners as they used to."

Sales of air conditioners were so lackluster last summer at Sears, Roebuck and Co. that they became a topic of conversation when the Hoffman Estates-based retailer addressed Wall Street in October.

"In July and August, unseasonably cool weather impacted sales of seasonal items, including air conditioners and summer apparel," Chief Executive Officer Alan Lacy said.

Said then-Chief Financial Officer Glenn Richter of the excess air conditioners: "The remaining units will be warehoused and sold next year."

With the summer off to a hot and humid start, consumers likely have been relieving Sears of that excess inventory.

"We are seeing a bit of a rush to stores by shoppers looking for window air conditioners," particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, Sears spokesman Larry Costello said Friday.

Ace Hardware and Lowe's Cos. also said they're well positioned for the hot weather.

"As far as inventory levels, we're in great shape on fans and irrigation products, such as sprinklers, hoses and oscillators," Ace spokeswoman Paula Erickson said. "Manufacturers for air conditioners are done producing for the year, but our current inventory on these items is still strong to meet consumer demand."

Lowe's said it also stocked up this summer, considering last year's cool temperatures "an anomaly," spokeswoman Karen Cobb said.

"We've planned for the warm summer temperatures we're having now," she said, noting that 6,000 BTU window air conditioners are popular here. "We have ample merchandise in the stores because of the heat wave and the July 4 holiday."

© 2005, Chicago Tribune