A “Think Snow” sign hangs in the front window — no, this is not a ski shop or a mountain chalet. This is a hardware store on the Main Line that depends on something resembling winter to keep the cash registers jingling from Christmas to spring.
This year, the thinking hasn’t worked. This has been one of the most snow-starved winters on record, with the city receiving only 0.3 inches, leaving the store with the fallout: an unsold snow-fighting arsenal of shovels, snow-melters, and the like.
“It’s a bad time of year January into March if nothing’s going on,” said Jeff Muth, co-owner of Do It Best hardware store in Wayne. “If I had Mother Nature’s number, I’d call.”
The dearth of cold and snow across the city and the nation has had immeasurable impacts on businesses, energy suppliers, consumers, and the overall U.S economy — some benign, some not.
On the sunny side, consumers here and elsewhere haven’t needed those shovels or much of that shoe-staining salt. They are saving on heating bills as demand flirts with historic lows across the country, and the warm temperatures might come in handy when buying heavily discounted sweaters and parkas.
Nationally, last month was the fifth-warmest January ever, dating to 1880, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. It was the eighth-warmest in New Jersey, and 12th in Pennsylvania. February has been a rerun in the Northeast, with temperatures in the Washington-to-Boston corridor averaging better than 6 degrees above normal.
With all that said, who are the biggest winners and losers this winter?
The Philadelphia Streets Department has spent only about $1.17 million of its $8.3 million snow-related budget. It hasn’t used any of its nearly $5.1 million fund for snowplows and disposal contractors who are mobilized for significant storms. About $3 million of this fund is typically spent in a given winter, a city spokesperson said.
The department purchased nearly $1 million of salt but has had to use only about 12% of that (any leftover salt will be stored and used next year).
For the state, PennDot has used only about $12 million of its $30 million snow-fighting budget.
Despite the excitement of a spontaneous day off, many teachers loathe snow days because the time must be made up, usually in the form of a shorter spring break or longer school year.
Cathy Gaul, a recently retired Cherry Hill teacher, said adding days to the end of the year affected many instructors who had summer employment lined up and needed off.
"Sure it’s fun to have an unexpected day off, but paying for it later is sheer hell in June!” Gaul wrote in an email.
Working parents are also winning this year, because there are few things more stressful than figuring out last-minute child care on a snow day.
People traveling through Philadelphia International Airport have endured fewer flight cancellations thanks to limited wintry conditions. The airport has seen a 3.3% increase in on-time flights and a 12.7% decrease in flight cancellations compared with last winter, according to a spokesperson.
It remains to be seen, but it’s likely. Warm winters at the end of the 20th century “coincided with the economic boom,” says Matt Rogers of the Commodity Weather Group, an energy agricultural forecasting service. “Lower energy prices reduced a lot of fixed heating/cooling costs for businesses and transportation expenses with generally low all-around fuel costs.”
William Kirk, who runs Weather Trends International, which sells forecasts to retailers, agrees: Winter warmth makes the overall economy rise.
Rhododendrons, magnolia trees, and holly bushes love a winter like this. Since the ground never froze, they won’t suffer leaf burn as the sun gets stronger, said Bill Cullina, executive director of the Morris Arboretum, in Chestnut Hill. For Longwood Gardens, the weather yields a bumper crop of traffic: Post-holiday visits were up 45% in January.
For kids in school, a snow day off means making memories with friends, sledding, and baking cookies. Chrissy Mardino, mother to a 16-year-old at Cherry Hill West High School and a 12-year-old at Curosi Middle, said her kids are still hoping for a day off.
Because her kids are older, she doesn’t panic to find someone to stay home with them, something parents often struggle with on snow days.
“It’s like a little bit of Christmas in a day,” she said. “I miss having those memories this year.”
Need we say more?
Sorry, no “snow panic” shopping this winter.
“In January and February grocers count on snow to drive customers back into stores, balancing out the dip in sales volume following the holidays," said Jere Downs, a former executive for Kroger’s, the nation’s biggest chain. "This is really important.”
It’s been tough times for sales of boots, coats, gloves and the like, says Barbara E. Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Sure, consumers have been able to get to the stores, but these days they can also shop online. What’s been missing are those “triggers,” a little snow and cold to put them in the mood.
“If the big snowstorm comes in March,” she said, "it’s too late. People already are thinking about spring.”
Energy use in January was almost 6% less than the five-year average, said Jeff Shields, spokesperson for the regional grid operator PJM Interconnection, which serves 13 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and D.C. That will show up in earnings reports. Nationwide, an index that measures natural-gas demands approached record lows, according to the Commodity Weather Group. Consumers, meanwhile, are saving money.
Poconos ski areas have been able to make all the snow they needed, keeping trails open and business steady, but it’s been a lot of work, says Brian Bossuyt, head of the Pocono tourism bureau. However, a major marketing ally has gone AWOL: real snow in the New York and Philly areas.
And snowmaking is quite expensive in terms of equipment and energy costs. Blue Mountain says it eats up about a third of the annual budget. Bob Taylor, who runs the snow guns there, had an unflattering term for temperatures that didn’t always cooperate. If retailers don’t want it, he’ll take that March snow. “It would be nice if we got one good snowstorm,” Taylor said.
Those who were calling for anywhere from 22 to 35 inches of snow — it’s not looking good.