Fed to look closer at weather's impact on economy as companies say cold winter chills sales

Storms outside can freeze up economic growth.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says the central bank will be watching to see if a recent slowdown in consumer spending and job growth is part of a broader trend or a temporary situation caused by this winter’s severe weather.

Just like frozen pipes can slow the flow of water, cold weather and storms can keep shoppers at home and cramp their spending.

A number of companies have blamed this season’s snow and freezing temperatures for putting the ice on their own sales:

— Wal-Mart Stores Inc. closed more than 200 of its stores during its fourth quarter. Its profit fell 21 per cent and it gave a subdued forecast for the year. Other factors, such as food stamp cuts, are hurting its business.

— Macy’s Inc. also closed stores because of winter storms. At one point during January, about 30 per cent of its Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores were shut. Macy’s said business remained sluggish until Valentine’s Day but hopes sales will bounce back in the spring.

— Toll Brothers Inc. said that freezing, snowy weather in January and February is weighing on its business in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, which make up about half of the homebuilder’s market. The company said this was one of the worst winters it’s seen and expects delays and added costs. But it is optimistic home sales will rebound in the spring.

— Home Depot Inc. estimated that it lost $100 million in the month of January because of bad weather. The home improvement retailer has benefited from a recovering housing market but a slowdown in November and December has hampered its business.

— McDonald’s Corp.’s sales at established U.S. stores fell 3.3 per cent in January, hurt by bad weather.

— Whole Foods Market Inc. said bad weather had shoppers making fewer trips to its stores, slowing its sales growth in the quarter that ended in January. It remains optimistic about its future sales trends.

— Columbia Sportswear Co. was one of the rare companies that benefited from a cold winter. The seller of Columbia jackets, Sorel boots and Mountain Hardwear sleeping bags said revenue rose 6 per cent in its latest quarter after being hurt by mild winters in the past two years.