EARLY WARNINGS HELP RETAILERS PREPARE FOR HURRICANE ISABEL

LANDOVER, Md. -- Supermarket operators along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard said the advance warnings for Hurricane Isabel helped them prepare for the disaster more thoroughly than they have been able to in the past.By the time the storm began battering the North Carolina and Virginia coasts with 100-mile-per-hour winds and several inches of heavy rainfall, food retailers already had nearly a full week

LANDOVER, Md. -- Supermarket operators along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard said the advance warnings for Hurricane Isabel helped them prepare for the disaster more thoroughly than they have been able to in the past.

By the time the storm began battering the North Carolina and Virginia coasts with 100-mile-per-hour winds and several inches of heavy rainfall, food retailers already had nearly a full week to send extra supplies to affected areas and take necessary precautions.

At Giant Food's headquarters here, the company for the first time formed a full-scale command center, with leaders from the chain's operations, information technology, risk management, communications and public relations staff working together to help the company manage its way through the weather. The potentially violent nature of the hurricane precipitated the creation of the command center, said Barry Scher, vice president, public affairs.

"It's fast and furious as opposed to a snowfall, where we know it's going to drop over the next 10 hours," he said. "The goal is to keep each other informed, but also to get the word out to stores as problems develop, so our people know what to do."

The center was already in action before the storm even started. Scher said a store manager in Delaware heard the state had ordered all retail stores to be closed on Thursday, but Scher said the command center was able to determine that the closure was only a suggestion, not an order.

"Therefore, we made an instant decision to stay open," he said. "We quelled a rumor quickly, and got the truth out to our Delaware store managers."

Scher said about 170 of the chain's 190 stores were in the path of the hurricane. The stores were "very busy" in the days leading up to the storm, and Giant took steps to increase shipments of bottled water, milk, flashlights, batteries and candles to the affected areas. The chain had no plans to close any stores, but Scher said Giant was evaluating that possibility "on an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute basis."

At Lowe's Food Stores, Winston-Salem, N.C., the company had already closed two of the 12 stores that were in the hurricane's path on Wednesday, the day before the hurricane hit.

The company was shipping extra products to its stores for a week before the storm arrived. Batteries, bottled water and canned foods were flying off the shelves, said Dianne Blancato, spokeswoman for the 100-store chain.

"The weather folks have been talking about this for the past week, so people have had advance notice for this storm," she said. "That's longer than I can remember for any storm."

The company also was prepared to ship other materials to the affected areas after the hurricane passed through, including clean-up supplies and bleach.

Tara Stewart, spokeswoman, Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C., said that despite the advance warnings of the storm, people who have been through such storms before still tend to wait until the last minute to do their emergency shopping.

"I think what happens in hurricane alley is, they wait because they've been through this 15 times," she said. "They're nonplussed by the fact that the hurricane is out there a week away. I think it's more the attitude of the consumer. People who have been through it before and have had to evacuate, they know what they didn't buy before. They think, 'What am I going to need? Is it going to work?"'

She said Harris Teeter had 22 stores in Isabel's path, and the company had time in the days before the storm to test power generators at the sites and get generators to those stores that might need them, in addition to making extra shipments of emergency supplies like batteries and bottled water.

Jeff Lowrance, spokesman, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., said the chain was well-prepared. It began sending extra quantities of bottled water, canned goods, batteries and ice items to stores a week before the storm hit.

"Our stores are in constant communication with our DCs to keep the shelves stocked," he said. "We also work closely with our DSD suppliers to ensure we have enough product."

Michael J. O'Conner, president of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, Richmond, said the full week of warnings before the storm helped his members prepare.

"One of the things we've heard is that they were very prepared for this in their restocking early in the week, both from the petroleum side and on the food side," he said. "Thank God for technology. This is the first time that everyone's got 24-hour weather on their laptops, and everyone certainly has 24-hour news access. Everyone's taken this to heart."

Everett Suddreth, executive vice president, North Carolina Food Dealers Association, Charlotte, also said his group's members were well prepared.

"We're ready with product going in, ice going in, and refrigerated trucks standing by," he said. "I feel that's what's happened with all the advance notice and the experience we've had with Hugo in '89, that our people are as ready as they can be under the circumstances. But who can say about Mother Nature?"