Prepare and Protect

Retailers learn importance of planning for the unexpected—hurricanes, violence or hacking.

By  Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator

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At the 11th annual CSP Leadership & Crisis Prevention Forum, held in May in Charlotte, N.C., more than 30 attendees hashed out the complexities of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), workplace violence, product liability, cyber liability, preparing and recovering from natural disasters, and clamping down on fraudulent workers’ comp and liability claims. Despite the great diversity in issues, one central best practice repeatedly rose to the top: Be prepared.

Scenario: Flooding and power outages from a storm challenge a c-store chain’s ability to provide fuel and to reopen.

QuickChek Corp., an approximately 130-store chain based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., thought its mettle was fully tested in 2011 by the one two punch of Hurricane Irene, which unleashed prolonged rain and flooding; and a Nor’easter, which dumped up to a foot of snow on the region only a few months later. By this point, “We thought we knew what we were doing,” said presenter Suzanne DelVecchio, counsel for Quick-Chek. The company installed a generator at its headquarters and had five on standby for stores. It coordinated with key suppliers to have the essentials in stock. And it lined up electricians, its general contractor and generator logisitics while planning where to move employees in coastal stores.

And then came Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. “It started with the rain, which wasn’t so bad,” DelVecchio said.“And then we had the wind. And the wind took down everything: trees, power lines. And then we had a storm surge.” Because Sandy hit at high tide, the surge pushed much further inland than is typical.“Everywhere you went, power lines are down, trees are down.

“We woke up on Tuesday, Oct. 30, and had 20 stores in New Jersey open,” she continued. “Our No. 1 goal became to reopen our stores.” The chain’s No. 1 challenge? No power. “Not having any power led to every other issue we had.”

For one, even the stores with gas couldn’t pump it out of the ground. QuickChek couldn’t get some of the generators to its sites because primary and secondary roads were closed. And when fuel and generators did reach their destination, drivers had to contend with local curfew and traffic c restrictions. (DanGiampetroni, manager for Kohler Generators,Kohler, Wis., pointed out that single outage can recover the cost of generator—$13,000 to $26,000, depending on the model—after factoring in lost revenues, inventory, wages, community use and more.)

But perhaps even more challenging for QuickChek were barriers thrown up by the government.

“Our local government was probably more unprepared than everyone else,”DelVecchio said. “They didn’t know what to do. And they were openly hostile to some of us.” Civic unrest flared up around a few sites as the stores doled out fuel, and some local police departments balked at having to protect the stores. “We had the police tells, ‘If you open your store, we will arrest you,’ ” she said.

Meanwhile, QuickChek was discovering that a state of emergency means business as usual in terms of regulations. For example, it was forbidden to sell premium gas at the price of regular because of the state’s below costlaw. It needed a waiver to provide customers with hot food, another to operate beyond local curfews, and another to bring in gas from other states and let truckers work longer shifts.

“We learned we had to take care of ourselves,” said DelVecchio. “We needed to be proactive. There was no one else who was going to come in and do this for us.” She did say, however, that Gov. Chris Christie was a helpful ally, introducing fuel rationing, which helped calm customers, and stepping in when the local police chief threatened to shut down a QuickChek site.

The company also learned communication is key—between headquarters and stores, with suppliers, employees, out of-state peers and customers. The chain posted store openings on its Face book page and through Twitter, inviting folks to stop in to get warm, grab a cup of coffee and charge electronics.

Going forward, QuickChek is eager for government officials to accept c-stores as an essential service during states of emergency. Legislators later pushed 45 bills that would require fuel retailers to have a generator on site and operate within 24 hours, but none recognized their crucial role in supporting communities.

“Food and fuel are not considered essential, “said DelVecchio. “But what are people going to do when they have no power and no food and fuel? We need to be essential so we can get our people on the road and into the stores, and get us to reopen.”

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