Weather a popular scapegoat as retailers disappoint

May 22, 2014, 1:50 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Executives at some of the top U.S. retailers have leaned on a familiar scapegoat as they unpack why first-quarter sales have broadly missed Wall Street’s expectations: bad weather.

And how many times have they complained about the weather this quarter? A lot, according to an analysis of their conference calls.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) executives said the word “weather” 20 times in their prepared management commentary for the fiscal first quarter, one of the highest counts among major retailers that have so far reported results. The retail giant said unseasonably cold and disruptive winter weather hurt U.S. sales and drove expenses higher than expected. Sales increased later in the quarter—a comment many retailers have since echoed.

The word “weather” was also spoken 19 times by Home Depot Inc. (HD) executives, 21 times by executives at Lowe’s Companies Inc. (LOW), and 17 times by Macy’s Inc. (M). Each of those retailers joined Wal-Mart in reporting first-quarter sales that fell short of Wall Street’s expectations.

Retailers are notorious for blaming disappointing sales on weather fluctuations. In any given year, it can be too cold, too hot, or even too wet, to reach expectations.

“Many retailers, more so today than in years past, seem to be using weather as a culprit for missing revenue and same-store sales targets,” said Alan Rifkin, senior retail analyst at Barclays Bank PLC.

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Home Depot Chief Financial Officer Carol Tome told Fortune the home-improvement retailer conducts a “deep, deep analytical review” to forecast weather. But those models cannot always be relied on.

“I am getting convinced we should just pull out the Farmer’s Almanac,” Tome said. “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen.”

Home Depot in recent years has invested in its supply chain, in part to better manage inventory when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. While storms frequently slammed much of the Northeast and other regions in the U.S. this winter, Tome said Home Depot still kept salt in stock.

Analysts and investors listening to retail conference calls may grow a bit tired of the weather blame game, though government data show this winter was a rough one. The 2013-2014 winter ranked the ninth driest and the 34th coldest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Midwest was hit particularly hard as it was one of the coldest on record in several states in that region.

“This is the first time weather has been a factor for six to seven months,” said Ron Friedman, a consumer products consultant for accounting and advisory firm Marcum LLP.

Retailers buy inventory months in advance, and thus have limited flexibility to respond to weather fluctuations. Friedman said Home Depot, Lowe’s and Staples Inc. (SPLS) are among the retailers that are better positioned when the weather is poor. According to Friedman, those retailers can use a system known as “rapid replenishment,” a process that allows them to place orders as needed from suppliers for basic items such as lawn mowers, shovels and office supplies.

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The weather woes this quarter are masking an even bigger issue: weak traffic. Traffic has been problematic as more customers shop online, and many analysts say brick-and-mortar retailers will continue to lose market share to online purveyors. Research and advisory firm Forrester Research said U.S. online retail sales accounted for almost 9% of the $3.2 trillion total U.S. retail sales last year, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 10% through 2018. That growth will easily outpace the performance at physical stores, which generally mirrors gross domestic product growth.

However, not all retailers are blaming the weather. Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. (DKS) stood out this quarter for its refusal to blame the weather after it issued a disappointing quarterly report that sent its share price down nearly 18% in one day.

Instead, Chief Executive Ed Stack called out a poor performance from the company’s golf business, which has been hurt by a glut of inventory, drastic discounting, and new technology that hasn’t resonated with golfers.

“We didn’t want it to look like we were hiding behind the weather,” Stack said.

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