Home Depot's Race Against the Rain

Randolph Huggins, left, and Larson Bagoulla, at Huggins' flooded Alexandria home, a common scene in the Washington area with the recent rain.
Randolph Huggins, left, and Larson Bagoulla, at Huggins' flooded Alexandria home, a common scene in the Washington area with the recent rain. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Monday morning. Washington had already absorbed more than six inches of rain in some areas and more was on the way. It was time for Home Depot Inc. to go into emergency mode.

Over the weekend, district manager Kevin Long, who oversees stores in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, had ordered wet-dry vacuums moved to the main aisles. Tarps and sump pumps were brought out. By Sunday night, when rain started filling gutters and alleyways became raging rivers, Long's stores were stocked.

But the rain didn't stop, and the shelves were getting thin. Some were even depleted.

It was time to get Guy Medaris, director of sales for Ridge Tool Co. in St. Louis, on his cellphone.

"You're definitely going to be moving stuff," Medaris remembered the company telling him Monday morning. "Start finding drivers."

Within hours, two trucks loaded with the company's Rigid-brand wet-dry vacuums left Ridge's headquarters for the Washington area. Eight more trucks were deployed over the next two days. And Medaris's cellphone kept ringing.

"It's kind of the worst of both worlds in that we have to respond very quickly and with a lot more trucks," he said. "This has put a stretch on the resources."

The run on vacuums illustrates the challenges retailers face in meeting sudden spikes in demand. Emergencies such as the flooding that has plagued the Washington area are the ultimate test of retailers' supply chains, the backbones of their operations. Seemingly mundane topics such as logistics and inventory management have become increasingly important to retailers in the face of stiff competition from nimble companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina.

Retailers aim for a "glass pipeline" that allows them to track merchandise from source to shelves -- and, they hope, into a customer's shopping cart. That lets companies respond quickly when inventory begins to thin.

"If you don't have that kind of visibility, that is really a scramble," said Janet Hoffman, director of North American retail for the consulting firm Accenture Ltd.

At the helm of Home Depot's flood plans is regional vice president Jane Roten, who recently moved to the Washington area from St. Petersburg, Fla., and has been through her share of hurricanes. She knew what to expect.

"This was going to be an event," she said. "This is not just another rainstorm."

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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