‘Sandy Sales’: After a Tragedy, How Soon Is Too Soon to Go Shopping?

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we’ll be greatly in need of consumers to get back to their free-spending ways to put the economy back on track. But while millions are still coping with destruction, death, and power outages, the idea of hosting a hurricane-themed sale is perhaps in bad taste.

One retailer is learning that it may be unwise to use a deadly natural disaster of epic proportions as an excuse for a crass, silly promotion. On Monday, hipster retailer American Apparel tried to be cute by sending out a special “Hurricane Sandy Sale” promotion, giving 20% off all purchases to e-mail subscribers in states affected by the historic storm. The discount was extended “in case you’re bored by the storm,” and required that customers “Just Enter SANDYSALE at Checkout.”

For some reason, consumers surrounded by devastation didn’t react to the gesture with widespread appreciation. Salon and Mashable rounded up some of the more colorful reactions posted on Twitter to the promotion, including:

Vulture Capitalism of the Day: American Apparel, out of touch as usual…

American Apparel is publicizing its hurricane Sandy sale. Just in case you wanted to burn their stores to the ground.

I will forever boycott their stores.

@americanapparel will soon be hiring a new marketing director.

(MORE: Sandy: The Rare Natural Disaster That Isn’t Expected to Boost Gas Prices)

It seems like this reaction could have easily been foreseen. But American Apparel isn’t the only retailer that’s tried to take advantage of tragedies in the news in order to boost sales. It’s not even the only store that used Hurricane Sandy as a marketing hook. Adweek reported that Gap sent out the following Tweet on Monday:

All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?

The Sandy-themed ploys bring to mind previous misguided marketing campaigns, including Spirit Airlines’ mocking the BP oil spill in the Gulf and Groupon’s Super Bowl commercial bizarrely mashing up the plight of the Tibetan people with half-off restaurant deals.

(MORE: What Were They Thinking? 10 Ads That Sparked Controversy)

While everyone who doesn’t work in marketing can probably agree that these ads are awful ideas, the truth is that, in the same way consumers were instructed to “go shopping” after 9/11, the damage of Hurricane Sandy could only get worse if people hibernate and keep their wallet shut in the days and weeks ahead. Estimates cited by the Associated Press had it that retailers and restaurants could easily lose over $25 million this week.

At Bloomberg News, one expert made the case for why we must shop, if not right now, then soon:

“If people aren’t going to Broadway shows and restaurants and hotels, all those businesses that rely on people spending money are going to take a hit for sure,” said Stephen Bronars, a senior economist at Welch Consulting in Washington and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. “People are still going to go out and buy a car or other durable goods they need, they’re just not going to do it this week. There will be winners and losers.”

Speaking of winners and losers, the mid-Atlantic region’s gambling havens are doing their best to get back to business and reopen to the public. The Maryland Live! Casino posted on its website that it is now “re-open and ready to welcome you!” while Atlantic City’s casinos, which were mostly unharmed by Sandy, could open by Thursday, November 1.

(MORE: Avoid Getting Scammed in Sandy’s Aftermath)

The majority of stores in the region are open, and malls have been crowded with shoppers retrieving storm supplies, as well as the odd holiday gift, according to USA Today. In hard-hit northern New Jersey, residents streamed into the Garden State Plaza shopping mall on Tuesday even though most of the stores were closed.

Instead of shopping, they gathered at stations to recharge phones and laptops. There were also two-hour waits to get tables at the mall restaurants like the California Pizza Kitchen.