Seattle Earthquake Jolts Northwest Mailers

Apr 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

The earth moved in Seattle, and catalogers based in the area felt it. But most agree that damage from the Feb. 28 earthquake — measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale — could have been much worse.

“We were pretty lucky,” says Mike Foley, spokesperson for Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), a Kent, WA-based cataloger/retailer of outdoor gear and apparel. “We were without electricity for three or four hours.” But the power outage didn’t hurt the catalog’s Web business. “We have a backup generator for our Website, which clicked on right away,” he says.

Though Foley says the company had no interruption in its online services, the Web help-desk staff had to leave their posts during the quake. While the building was being checked for damage, REI put a message on its help-desk line saying that operators were unavailable due to an earthquake. And though REI’s distribution center in Sumner, WA, is closer to the earthquake’s Tacoma epicenter than Kent, it was barely disrupted. “Some small items fell off the shelves, but we continued to have electricity there,” Foley says.

For Seattle-based apparel and accessories cataloger/retailer Nordstrom, the quake was little more than a late-morning inconvenience, says spokesperson Shasha Richardson. The Nordstrom buildings were inspected for damage after the quake and deemed safe. Only Nordstrom’s phone lines were affected. “The wait time on our lines increased during the hour or so after the quake,” she says, adding that things were back to normal soon after.

Kitchen products mailer gets shook

Seattle-based cooking products cataloger/retailer Sur La Table fared the worst of the mailers contacted, with damage at two of its distribution centers in the city. Immediately after the quake, “our calls were transferred to our outsourced night call center in Los Angeles,” says vice president of operations John Salvatore. The call center informed customers that the cataloger had experienced an earthquake and that there may be shipment delays, but that the company was still accepting and processing orders.

The Seattle call center is in the company’s retail distribution center, where the roof collapsed, damaging products. The company evacuated that location to inspect it and clean up the damage, but two-thirds of the retail distribution center, including the call center, was back in operation by noon on Friday March 2. Salvatore says that on March 1, “we replaced the ceiling tiles and had management contact our overnight customers to tell them that they would not be receiving packages for at least another day.”

Sur La Table’s catalog distribution center had minimal damage to its inventory, “but we had a broken water main that flooded the offices,” Salvatore says. “We dammed the water with boxes of copy paper to prevent it from flooding the warehouse. Once we cleaned and secured the merchandise in that building, we opened up with a full staff the following Monday morning.” While Salvatore says that it is too soon to tell exactly how much damage was done, he “would be surprised if it was less than $1 million,” including merchandise, lost time, and structural damage.

The quake, which struck at approximately 10:55 a.m. Pacific time, also put an abrupt end to the Direct Marketing Association’s Net.Marketing Conference at the Washington State Convention Center. In addition to leaving thousands of area residents without power and damaging the tower at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (which forced a temporary closure of the airport), the quake caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.

One Net.Marketing attendee, Greg Taylor, president of Cashmere, WA-based food gifts cataloger Liberty Orchards, says his company sustained delayed effects of the quake. “The earthquake did something to the main phone line, so the next morning, we couldn’t place or receive long-distance phone calls, and we didn’t have Web access.” Yet the outage resulted in few sales losses. “This time of year the Web orders aren’t exactly rolling in,” he says. “We might have lost a few, but the outage was only for part of the morning.”