Sandy Brings Out the Best and Worst in Marketers

JohnNewThe buildup leading up to superstorm Sandy was met by many along the East Coast with skepticism. We’ve all heard these doomsday scenarios before, but rarely has the storm matched the hype. As such, many residents ignored the warnings to fill up their gas tanks and gas cans in preparation for power outages and fuel supply disruptions.

As we all know now, Sandy was an epic storm for the ages that left a trail of destruction from Maryland to Maine and all points in between. This caused major power outages affecting homes and businesses for days, which spurred extreme panic from consumers.

Runs on gasoline were essentially unprecedented as customers waited six hours or more at gas stations for the next supply truck to arrive. Lines stretched back, in some cases, three miles. Customers took to Twitter for help finding gas stations with fuel supply and the shortest lines.
At a handful of stations in New York and New Jersey, cold, desperate motorists were met with extreme price increases at the pumps, culminating with one unbranded marketer in Brooklyn charging $15 a gallon.

Customers themselves took to Websites like Craigslist to gouge other customers in their time of need with gallon cans of gasoline selling for $25. I saw one guy advertising a five-gallon can for $200 “cash only.” I guess he too was being mindful of the exorbitant credit card fees charged by Visa and MasterCard.

Tensions, as you would expect, surged to a boiling point. Police reported dozens of arrests stemming from fights after customers tried to cut in line.

Controlling the Chaos
New York and New Jersey moved quickly to target station owners that inflated the price of gasoline. Dozens of stores are being investigated in New Jersey, and 13 stations in New York are likely to draw fines from the state for illegally raising prices. NACS was quick to disavow the practice.

“The overwhelming majority of retailers make legitimate business decisions based upon real cost and market conditions in compliance with the law, and it is likely that is the case this week in New Jersey,” NACS Vice President of Communications Jeff Lenard told me during the storm. “If retailers are violating New Jersey laws, they will be held accountable.”

But while some rogue operators captured the headlines, there was also a lot of good that can be mentioned. Local companies in New Jersey, most notably Hess and Quick Chek, made the best of a bad situation by keeping customers informed and restoring some order to the madness. Hess, for example, took to Twitter to post hourly updates of its fuel supply inventory at all of its stores in the areas affected by the storm. They did this for an entire week.

Quick Chek employees were working around the clock–on backup lighting in some stores–to provide emergency personnel free hot coffee and fresh food to keep them going when times were at their worst.

The list of responsible corporate citizens in the industry is long and varied. Atlas Oil trucked in fuel from the Midwest; Sheetz, Wawa, Exxon, BP, Couche-Tard, 7-Eleven and so many others–too many to list here–stepped up with donations of money, food and bottled water. But these stories rarely make headlines, and you know what? They don’t have to. Customers know where to go in a time of need and that is the true barometer for success.

While this storm presented challenges for so many, I hope it also serves as a learning opportunity. Company leaders should take a moment to consider their emergency preparedness and ensure they have procedures in place to deal with the next Sandy. I’m sure companies like Hess and Quick Chek earned a wave of new supporters with their leadership during the storm. Don’t let that come at your expense.

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