Snowstorm heaps more economic misery on stores

By Ylan Q. Mui, V. Dion Haynes and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A11

In the long run, the record snowfall that has assailed the Washington region will go down as a mere blip in an economic landscape dominated by the recession, the experts say. But that is cold comfort to many local businesses forced to shut down and dig out over the weekend just as they hoped to turn the corner toward recovery.

"It's insult to injury," said Mauro Farinelli, part-owner of clothing store Denim Bar in Pentagon Row. "People are already having a hard time selling their wares, and we get dumped on."

Sara Damelio, management consultant for the Still Point in Takoma Park, estimated that the holistic spa lost as much as $17,000 after closing its doors Saturday and Sunday. Entrepreneur David Von Storch put the weekend's losses at his three Capitol City Brewing Co. restaurants at $200,000. Aaron Gordon, who owns the Red Velvet cupcake shop in the District's Penn Quarter and two Tangysweet frozen yogurt stores, calculated his hit between $10,000 and $15,000.

"Let's put it this way: Frozen yogurt is not the first thing that comes to mind in a snowstorm," he said. "I think we're going to be affected for the next week."

Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said the Washington region's economy measures about $400 billion annually and estimated that the storm cost firms hundreds of millions in potential sales -- for now. An analysis he performed after a crippling snowstorm in January 1996 showed that much of the loss was recouped over the next few months. He said another recovery is likely to happen this time.

Another bright spot, however small: February tends to be a slow month for businesses anyway. In addition, Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics, which forecasts weather for businesses, said the storm could have caused more damage if it had derailed Valentine's Day or the Presidents' Day weekend.

Barbara B. Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said businesses such as law offices and accounting firms can operate during snow emergencies if employees are able to work remotely. But for restaurants and retailers that depend on shopper traffic, the pain will be greater.

Jen Donahue, owner of Treat clothing boutique in Old Town Alexandria, said she might have been able to make up lost sales if the snow had stopped after the storm in December. But snow closed the shop about a week ago and again on Saturday -- typically her busiest day of the week -- and it could get hammered again if the latest predictions for up to 10 inches of snow on Tuesday pan out.

"Mother Nature has definitely not been kind to us retailers this season," Donahue said. "I think it's going to be really hard, given the number of Saturdays that we'd been affected."

Local restaurateurs echoed her sentiments. Robert Barolin, owner of the City Square Cafe, a small, family-owned restaurant in Old Town Manassas, estimated that he has lost at least $8,000 in revenue since he shut down Friday. He tried opening for an hour and a half on Sunday but closed again after customers failed to materialize. Von Storch said two of his restaurants rely heavily on lunch traffic from federal employees, which has all but vanished as the government shut down.

"It's killing us," von Storch said. "Like an airplane that leaves empty, you never fill that seat again."

Instead, shoppers flocked to grocery stores to stock up on basics before the storm hit. Safeway spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said he expected Washington area stores to see an overall increase in sales as many families gathered ingredients to cook for several days.

"Virtually all meals are going to be at home," he said. "People plan for that."

Hardware stores also enjoyed bustling business when they could open. Gina Schaefer's four Ace Hardware stores were closed Saturday but slammed on Friday and Sunday. Business on Monday was heavier than usual as Schaefer awaited a new shipment of shovels.

Ed Copenhaver, owner of Frager's Hardware of Capitol Hill, said the 90-year-old store rang up its biggest sales day on record Friday -- about $60,000. Frager's managed to stay open through the weekend, staffed by employees who could walk to work. At least one slept on site.

"It's a merchant's dream come true," Copenhaver said. "People are just pouring in. The phone won't stop ringing."

Several local entrepreneurs said they were determined to keep their businesses open as long as possible, even if it meant staffing the store by themselves.

"Not coming was not an option. I was literally going to walk," said Theresa Watts, owner of the Lettie Gooch clothing shop. "It's been up to me to get here and get the door open."

Amber Sutton, owner of Dogtopia, a dog day-care center in Woodbridge, said she slept on an air mattress on the floor of her office Friday and Saturday to take care of seven dogs that were boarding overnight. Now she's worried she'll have to spend another night or two with the dogs if the predictions for Tuesday hold true.

"It's so depressing," Sutton said. "It's likely I'll stay. The forecast doesn't sound good."

Staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company