The effects of weather on Internet retail sales
The weather is a recognized contributing factor to offline and online footfall in the retail sector. Given the tactical capabilities inherent in the paid search channel and the value in justifying and planning natural search campaigns with a long-term seasonal view, a closer examination of the impact of changes in the weather on consumer activity is an important area of consideration.
An attempt to define what constitutes a change in the weather illuminates the topic somewhat. There are essentially two different types of weather change we need to be concerned about - we'll call these Seasonal and Abnormal.
Seasonal weather changes
Seasonal changes are those changes in the weather that are broadly expected and cyclical. It's cold in the winter, hotter in the summer, it rains most in January and December, and there is about four times more sunshine in July compared to January. These facts don't change - climate change aside. Consumer demand therefore can be anticipated based on these seasonal generalisations. More umbrellas, scarves and raincoats are sold in Q4 of any given year; more fans, air conditioners, barbeques, and more garden furniture sold in anticipation of summer sun.
Abnormal weather changes
Abnormal weather changes, on the other hand, act to disrupt or alter these predictable seasonal trends, creating less predictable peaks and troughs in consumer demand throughout a given year. The three key types of disruption are what could be termed Purchase Timing, Direct Response, and Substitution.
Departures from normal, expected weather conditions often result in the consumer postponing their purchases or bringing future planned purchases forward.
For example, random hot days in the Spring will compel consumers to buy Summer apparel earlier than they had perhaps planned to, as well as things like barbeques and garden furniture. An unexpected run of rain will similarly compel consumers to buy umbrellas and raincoats earlier than planned. A cold snap, particularly one including some snow, will result in earlier Christmas shopping activity as people get into the Christmas spirit earlier than they would have done so without the excitement of snow. All these purchases would have still been made, but were brought forward or postponed due to weather abnormalities.
Purchase Timing doesn't impact on what is bought by a consumer over the year, just when the purchases are actually made. Direct Response on the other hand refers to those purchases that would not have taken place if not for the departure from normal, expected weather conditions.
For example, an uncharacteristically hot period in Shanghai resulted in almost 4 times more watermelons being sold than in any other year in that city, directly related to the abnormally high temperature and something that would never have ordinarily occurred. Sudden heavy snow in a region that never experiences it will result in more sales of antifreeze, heavy clothing, and bath salts. A domestic heat wave will create uncharacteristic demand for sun block, air conditioners, fans, sunglasses, and certain hydrating foods and drinks.
Often the weather doesn't simply change the timings of consumer demand or create a new demand; it can also substitute the expected demand for one product with another. For example, a few weeks of unexpected heavy rain will lead to a rise in the sale of DVDs and books (as these are products consumed indoors) whilst restaurant reservations and alcohol consumption will drop (as these are activities that require you to leave your home).
These purchases however are often required by the consumer to satisfy an immediate demand, for example a few days of blistering sun will compel consumers to buy barbeques but without wanting to wait for a delivery of that item. In these cases there will be significant researching done online, looking at products, reviews and also where to buy the item close-by, but with the actual conversion taking place offline.
The sellers that have a comprehensive bricks and mortar presence, such as the likes of DSGi and Argos, will obviously benefit more-so than their online-only competitors in this regard. These types of firms will have to accept that there will often be a discrepancy in online visits versus conversions as a result and factor that into how they measure ROI and justify spends.
Within the context of expected seasonal weather changes, it's important to plan for SEO by ensuring you execute an SEO campaign 3 months before the weather is expected to change consumer buying preferences. For instance, if you want to rank for the search term 'gloves' then you need to have achieved a ranking by October as it is at that point that the number of searches that are made by consumers for 'gloves' begins to rocket, so an SEO campaign therefore needs to start in July to target that term.
The same would be true for scarves, ear muffs, hot water bottles, socks, and boots, all of which experience about double the amount of consumer searches in October, peaking in November, then dropping down to unexciting levels thereafter. Use Google Trends for this kind of data, which will also demonstrate how trends differ across different years, often due to the weather.
Paid search can operate on the same basis, but has a particular advantage over natural search in that it can also respond to abnormal weather changes. For example, an online department store can exploit an unexpected heat wave by purchasing more paid search ad impressions for its fans and mobile conditioning units to reflect this unexpected demand. It could do this incredibly quickly, assuming it has the stock levels and/or supply chain that can deliver on that demand at a time when supply-side forces are at their most unfavourable to competitors and consumers.
Paid search, in addition, has the benefit of being capable of presenting messaging and promotions that tie in directly with the nature of the demand, given that the abnormal conditions would provide you with unique insight into what the potential consumer is looking for and why.
Ultimately, the weather affects the buying activity of the potential consumer and anticipating this and responding to it is an important driver of competitive advantage, be it based on expected or unexpected weather movements. Offline affects online, and that includes the weather.