Good for Skiers, Bad for Retailers

Monday, March 25th, 1996
By James Bernstein, Staff Writer

For most people, this past winter can be summed up by two numbers: 19, as in storms, and 72, as in inches of snow.

But executives at Genovese Drug Stores Inc.can summarize it with just one number : 6 million. That's how many dollars the Melville-based company estimates it lost in sales because of Long Island 's fierce winter. For merchants across Nassau and Suf­ folk, it was a season to forget. Shoppers stayed away from stores, customers stayed out of restaurants, and even some video rental stores were empty during the storms.

"I think it demoralized people," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the area's largest business group. "It dissuaded them from going out ... It had an impact on sales."

Kamer said retail sales in December, the busiest and most important month for merchants, were off by 5 percent. Consumers edgy about their jobs accounted for some of the surprisingly large decline, but economists cited bad weather, too.

Not every business cursed the winter. Fuel oil companies had a much better sea­son than during the unseasonably warm winter of 1994-95, said Kevin Rooney, ex­ecutive director of the 90-member Oil Heat Institute of Long Island.

"This obviously was a good year, especially if we're comparing it to last year, 'which was an unmitigated disaster'" Rooney said. "Product sales were 20 per­ cent higher than the year before."

At the 105-year-old Marran Fuel Oil Co. in Patchogue, president Jack Marran called it "a very good year for us," though the weather was a complicating factor. "With the blizzard, we had to hire people to drive with the drivers to shovel the snow," he said. "There were times when we would get to a house but couldn't make a delivery until the customer plowed. In that sense, costs were higher. But the number of sales was higher, too."

Not much moved during the winter months, said Diane Falvo, owner of Long Island Moving & Storage Inc. in Plainview. And Christine Ryan, executive director of the 480-member Long Island Restaurant & Caterers Association in Farmingdale, said most people ate at home during the bad weather.

Savino Sguera, owner of Savino's Hide­ away in Mount- Sinai, can testify to that . "This year was the worst ever. I closed quite a few days. We couldn't catch up" with lost business. "The people just didn't come in."

At Genovese, more than half of the chain's 120 stores in the metropolitan area were closed Jan. 8, during the 19-inch snowstorm now known as the Blizzard of '96. Things didn't return to normal for days, said Jerome Stengel, vice president and treasurer . "We had difficulty staffing, and customer traffic fizzled."

It might seem that hardware stores did a booming business, selling snow shovels, blowers and other snow-removal equip­ ment. They did sell such items, said Bob Eisenstadt, owner of a hardware store in Glen Cove. But, he added, "It's a double­ edged sword. You lose other business." And there are only so many shovels and blowers people will buy once the worst seems to have passed, he said.

"I don't think anyone had a good win­ter profit-wise," said Diane Lore, owner of Baldwin TruValue Hardware. "You lose all your regular business."

Richard Mast, manager of the Blooming­dale's department store at Roosevelt Field, said traffic was light on the snowiest days of winter, but said the store's sales people made up for it. "One of the things we train our people to do is work on the telephones. They were able to write a decent amount of business. I'm not going to tell you the snow didn't slow us down, but we made our [sales goal) plan for January."

Business was up at Blockbuster , which has 59 video stores on Long Island, said Wally Knief, a spokesman for the company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Knief declined to provide any figures, but said, "Some stores did better in a day than they [usually) do in a week." But Laurie Licata,' manager of Video Games And More in Merrick , did not report such luck. "People couldn't travel," she said. "You can't charge them late fees when they can't get here."

All that snow cost LI $29M into added expense later on, warm spells allowed.melted snow and .t:ain to seep into concrete. When the weather turned cold again, the water froz , expanding and cracking roadways. To repair the damage, Huntington, for example, will need to issue a bond.

The heavy storms also Wreaked havoc with the expensive plows and payloaders that clear the snow. In Babylon, two pay­ loaders trying to dig out a doctor's car in the January blizzard slid into a bog and had to be pulled out. The doctor was able to get to the hospital to deliver a baby, Schaffer said, but the town spent $75,000 to repair the transmission of one of the payloaders.

For town workers, the overtime pay­ checks; though welcome, help make up for long, difficult days. In the January blizzard, Cannone, the Smithtown mechanic, drove a town plow 175 miles back and forth along a 5-mile stretch of North Country Road.

He worked 13 hours straight the first day, staying alert by sticking his head out of the window of his truck into the cold air and talking about favorite restaurants and children with another town employee rid­ ing along. "Everyone thinks it may be easy money, but it's the hardest money you earn. It's not just get in the truck and go. You're driving in the worst conditions," the 40-year-old father of two said.

He said he particularly worries about his son, Christopher, 3, who has a seizure disorder. During the storm on March 2, Can­ none was called home because his son had a 104-degree temperature and needed to go to the hospital. "To be honest with you, when I'm out plowing, I think about my family quite a bit," he said.

Despite all the expensive overtime week­ends, highway superintendents said the timing could have been worse. "Fortunately, we missed the holidays," said Southold Highway Superintendent Raymond Jacobs.

Still, most are looking forward to the spring and summer. "Hopefully, winter's at the end," said Huntington Highway Superintendent William Naughton. "If I never saw it again, I wouldn't be bothered ."

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