Before Superstorm Sandy took its toll on the East Coast and the very infrastructure of New York City, many of the area's residents seemed to brush it off as more of a nuisance than a serious threat. After all, in the wake of Hurricane Irene last year, there were hardly any consequences felt city-wide like total blackouts, submerged subway stations and flooded houses. Don't get me wrong, warnings and evacuation orders should be obeyed for good reason—but to the average self-important New Yorker, they can come off as more of a bother than a precaution for one's own good.
I decided to brave the brunt of the storm cooped up at my girlfriend's apartment in Manhattan. When I wasn't nibbling away at our stockpile of food or watching the news, I was on the Internet. And yes, I made some impulse buys. Cabin fever and credit cards are a bad combination. Soon, brands like Steven Alan and Urban Outfitters offered free shipping with codes relating to Sandy or the coming rain. Shoebuy.com, notably, offered a generous 20% discount with a portion of the proceeds preemptively going towards hurricane relief. Almost all of these promotions were meant to last just on Monday.
For the most part, the sales remained relatively low-key without any notable social media backlash. It wasn't until American Apparel and Gap got into the fray that people started questioning the ethics of companies trying to take advantage of the fact that people were stuck at home and probably itching to spend some cash. American Apparel offered 20% off its wares for 36 hours, Gap sent a tweet saying they were planning on doing a lot of online shopping. Both companies were seen as insensitive. Given that we wouldn't know Sandy's impact until hours later, I think it was just an honest mistake on their part. The real way to navigate a potential catastrophe like this while taking advantage of heavier online traffic is to just go ahead and throw customers a promo code, while skirting around the real reason so many people are stuck indoors.
As far as clothing companies go, I think J.Crew handled the situation especially well. As someone who tracks their promotions like a hawk, I was half-expecting free shipping or some sort of deal on Monday as well. Yet, it wasn't until after the hurricane hit and the full damage assessed that the company took a stance. Up and down the East Coast, people were left, literally, in the dark while others were left without a home at all. J.Crew, based in New York, first sent out an e-mail expressing their concern for everyone affected by the storm, and apologized for any shipping delays and problems this might cause. In a magnanimous move, the company announced they would be waiving late fees and financial penalties for those who have a store credit card, and then subtly dropped a pretty good online promotion a few days later. New England-based Penfield is donating $10 from every purchase made on its website to the American Red Cross' Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.
While catastrophes like this prove that (gasp), there are more important things in life than accruing new clothes, it's also a great time for brands and companies to humanize themselves. What most people took umbrage with—in regards to Gap and American Apparel—was a perceived lack of sympathy and awareness. Meanwhile, companies like Opening Ceremony, Gilt and Mr Porter warned customers of shipping delays and apologized in advance. In a powerless East Village, restaurants and bodegas alike were giving out food items that would have otherwise spoiled. It wasn't seen as a handout or charity, but an act of solidarity. When a customer feels like you're right there with them rather than just holding out a coupon as an olive branch, it strengthens the connection with your brand. In the aftermath of Sandy, maybe what companies can learn is how not to say "we are really sorry this happened," but rather "we're all in this together."