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Irene spawns buying spree along East Coast; Generators, batteries among the big sellers

It's the not-so-quiet before the storm.

People up and down the Eastern Seaboard are crowding hardware stores, grocers and big-box retailers like Home Depot and Walmart to pick up $599 generators, bottled water and flashlights in preparation for Hurricane Irene, which is expected to hit landfall by Saturday.

At Ace Hardware in Elizabeth City, N.C., near where the hurricane is expected to land, business on Thursday was triple what it is normally on that day. The ShopRite in West Orange, N.J., was chaotic Friday afternoon, with cars honking as people waited to get into the parking lot. The Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., sold out of portable generators by Thursday.

"With everyone saying this is going to be a bad one, no one is leaving anything to chance," said John Robbins, an employee at the Nags Head store.

Some retailers are getting a boost in business, but extreme weather like hurricanes is damaging to the retail sector as a whole. And this one is coming in the thick of the critical back-to-school shopping weekend, a time when some merchants make up to 25 percent of their annual revenue. In fact, weather research firm Planalytics estimates that Irene will stop 80 million shoppers from hitting the malls this weekend. At the same time, demand for hurricane-related supplies is giving some retailers an unexpected boost that will likely continue as people deal with the cleanup in Irene's aftermath.

In a note to clients Thursday, Citigroup analysts Deborah Weinswig and Tina Hwang said they expect department stores will suffer with shoppers locked up inside their homes, while discount stores, supermarkets and home-improvement stores will get a rush of customers eager to stock up on canned foods, batteries and other survival gear.

To meet the increased demand, many big retailers like Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart have assembled disaster teams. "Preparing for a hurricane is all about the supply chain. Making sure you got the right products at the right time that consumers are looking for," said Sherif Mityas, a partner at AT Kearney, a retail consulting firm. "They're wired into how the storm is affecting the communities around the stores."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has its own staff meteorologist, who can evaluate the weather data and analyze how it will affect its stores and workers. The discounter also can forecast what shoppers are looking for before a hurricane strikes -- and in its aftermath -- by using predictive modeling that studies past spending behavior.

Mark Cooper, senior director of Wal-Mart's emergency management team, said the retailer is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that stores have all the items on its list for emergency preparedness kits. The list, which is on www.ready.gov, includes batteries and cleaning supplies. In the Northeast, Cooper said Walmart also plans to push more supplies like bug spray and clean up products in anticipation of flooding.

"Katrina is the benchmark for hurricanes," said Cooper, who estimates that about 600 of the more than 4,000 Walmart stores could be affected by the storm. "We'll see how this one goes. Regardless of size, we will be prepared."

For all their preparation, a hurricane can still take retailers by surprise, particularly at stores in areas that are being evacuated. At an Ace Hardware store in Springfield, Mass., Delmira King, the store manager, said they were sold out of tarps and a wide range of other equipment. Only a single case of water was left on the shelves. At the Ace Hardware in Nags Head, the store sold out of generators and sandbags.

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