Hurricane Charley Calls on Catalogers

It was hit or miss for Florida catalogers who confronted Hurricane Charley last week. Fort Meyers, FL-based women’s apparel cataloger/retailer Chico’s, which found itself unexpectedly close to the eye of the storm, sustained damage to two of its Fort Meyers stores, including blown out windows and torn off signage. It also lost electricity at its corporate headquarters. As of early this week a dozen of the company’s approximately 450 corporate employees were still absent from work as they contend with the cleanup of their homes and backyards.

“The common story is that there is no electricity, and in some places, no running water, and it’s very hot and sticky,” says a Chico’s spokesperson. “People are home cleaning up their yards.”

The company did not miss any customer orders, however, because it transferred calls that would ordinarily be handled by its Fort Meyers facility to an out-of-state call center. The corporate headquarters, meanwhile, were open for business on Monday morning, functioning on power supplied by a generator. “Essentially, we didn’t miss a beat,” the spokesperson says. A team of IT workers came in into the headquarters over the weekend to assess the damage to the company’s computer system. So far, no damage has been found.

The storm was treated as par for the course at Jacksonville, FL-based Venus Swimwear. The company, which mails winter apparel book WinterSilks as well as its flagship swimsuit catalog, had been prepared for the worst, says vice president of operations Elisa Lowry. But it ended up escaping the storm entirely.

The company had secured the outside of its headquarters by making taking in anything that wasn’t nailed to the ground. About a dozen concrete picnic tables were taken in, in addition to railroad ties it uses outside its loading dock to boost up delivery trucks that would not reach the dock on their own. A large concrete sign bearing the company’s name in its driveway was also removed. Indoors, the company backed up its computer system by making a tape drive disk containing everything from customer order history to vendor contact information, says Lowry. Had a loss of electricity occurred, the company would have been able to continue operating for 72 hours before resupplying its generator with kerosene.

It took a liberal approach with its employees, leaving attendance on Friday to their own discretion. Lowry says the company’s greatest concern was that employees who must cross bridges to get their homes not get trapped in Jacksonville due to the storm. The area’s higher bridges (as opposed to those that are low enough to contain a drawbridge function that raises to allow boats to pass under), she explains, are typically closed when winds reach speeds of around 50 miles per hour.

The company, which regularly has 24-hour/seven day a week call center operations in its headquarters, closed the facility at 7 p.m. on Friday, with a message left on its phone system that the company was not taking orders at that time due to the hurricane precautions it had taken. By 8 a.m. Saturday, the center was taking calls again.

Lowry says she does not anticipate a financial impact to the company from lost orders. “We kind of count our blessings,” she says. “This is a very down time for us, when we’re done with the height of the swimwear season, and before WinterSilks has picked up. We really do anticipate that our customers will get in contact with us again. That sales were just deferred is what we’re hoping.”

Weirsdale, FL-based wholesale citrus cataloger G&S Packing Co. got lucky. Its two orange groves, located in the same area as its corporate headquarters, in Marian County, 60 miles to the north of Orlando, weren’t damaged by the hurricane. But nearby, says president Earl Scales, “a 30- to 40-mile swath of citrus land was devastated.”

Catalogers who buy from groves to fill gift baskets for sale during the holiday season may be faced with paying more for their fruit, though, how much more, is too early to tell, says Scales. “We don’t know what the damage is yet,” he says. “I think we’ll know the extent of the damage to the fruit within a week or two.”

At corporate headquarters, storm preparation was minimal since it is the company’s off-season, with no merchandise picked off the trees yet. Scales says all the company did was make sure all doors were closed, the computer system shut down, and the employees told to stay at home. “We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” he says. “We’re not selling anything now because this is our off season. There was no financial loss to the company.”

For Norcross, GA-based gift basket cataloger Orange Blossom Indian River Citrus, which, as its name suggests, sources its oranges exclusively from the Indian River area of Florida, the storm will not affect its fruit supply this fall, but it did interrupt production of its first holiday catalog for this year, says owner Carla Campbell. The company’s printer, which is in Orlando, lost power for several days. According to Campbell, it didn’t ramp back up until Tuesday. “I doubt it will delay our mailing date,” she says. “It may put us a week behind in production, but we don’t mail until mid-October.”

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