If you were in the Northeast last week, you probably saw the retail aftermath of a freak hurricane scare: Big box store shelves denuded of cheap flashlights and, more importantly, their constant companions, those hulking, hard-to-store, near-obsolete D batteries. People who didn’t even remember where their flashlights were suddenly started scouring New England for the heaviest, most inconvenient battery variety of them all.
I was one of those people.
After moving from big box store to big box store, I struck gold: While getting ready to check out at Wal-Mart, a shipment came in from Rayovac. I now felt safer, knowing I could be out of power for a month, and still be able to get around my house at night.
Now, with three unopened packages of D batteries on my hands, I’ve found myself wondering: How did Wal-Mart do it? Were employees in California stripping shelves of batteries and sending them eastward in advance of Hurricane Irene? Or were big box retailers diverting battery stock in their warehouses bound for Oklahoma to New Hampshire instead?
So I called Rayovac headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin to find out. And what I found made much more sense, and yet struck me as stranger than anything I had imagined.
Kent Klagos, Division Vice President for Sales and Trade Marketing initiated me into the arcane world of how a battery company prepares for disasters.
First of all, it’s important to note that both battery companies and their customers spend a lot of time planning ahead. In Rayovac’s case, Klagos says they meet with their biggest clients each year, and figure out what their inventory needs are. Rayovac maintains a disaster hotline for customers running low on stock, and big box stores that see high demand also maintain their own
operations centers. “Once the storm hits, we know Home Depot has a special room at their facility in Atlanta where they lock themselves in and basically they’re in there 24 hours a day planning for the storm…they’re constantly on the phone with their suppliers, asking what they can have, when they can get it, what the backup plans are,” Klagos says.
Here’s where things get interesting. While all companies run things a bit differently, Klagos says this is more or less an industry-wide way of operating. Rayovac only has one primary distribution center for its batteries and flashlights, in Dixon, Illinois. So if the company had to hire a truck to try to beat a hurricane to Miami, a lot of people desperate for D batteries would be out of luck. So each year, Klagos says, Rayovac sets up a series of strategically located satellite facilities. “Typically, the Southeast will get loaded-up, because you’re going to see more hurricanes in the Southeast than in the Northeast…you try to separate inventory for [disasters], especially a D battery, a C battery, a AA battery and…some of the more common flashlights, and just plan for that.” Klagos says the company starts stocking these satellite warehouses in June, when hurricane season typically begins.
And come to find out, Rayovac doesn’t actually own or operate any of the satellite warehouses. If another company has a warehouse that’s got some extra space, Klagos says a battery company, like Rayovac, can just rent some of it, “It could be every day for Kleenex facial tissue, and they just happen to have some room in there that we can secure and deal with…they’ll provide all the [maintenance and loading] services. [And] either we’ll send in our own truck, or our customer will send their truck,” to pick the batteries and flashlights up.
That’s how the Southeast stays stocked-up. So what happened with Irene, and why did places like Wal-Mart in Concord, New Hampshire, run out of batteries? And how did the store get that 11th hour shipment of D batteries in time for me to buy them?
The Southeast satellite warehouses were too far away, so no help there. “In your case, in New Hampshire…it’s typically a two-day truck point, so we’re expediting as quickly as we can get it out there, to get it to the stores,” Klagos says. He says that a lot of the big boxes that would normally be prepared for a Southeastern hurricane were caught off-guard by a Northeastern storm. But some were a bit more prepared than others, enough so that they had time to get batteries from Rayovac’s main warehouse in Illinois.
And since the Rayovac satellite facilities didn’t lose much inventory to Irene, if Hurricane Katia makes landfall in the Southeast, they’ll still be well-stocked. Meanwhile, if your local big box retailer doesn’t have the batteries you’re looking for, Klagos says it’s worth checking out smaller hardware stores and grocery stores. Being a salesman, he can’t resist adding, “It’s always good to stock up on batteries and flashlights. You don’t have to worry about them getting old. Batteries are good for seven-plus years of storage, and there’s stories about them lasting for 20 years.”
That’s very good news as I try to figure out where to store my new lifetime supply of D batteries.