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Business heats up for some while others suffer

By Sonja Ryst
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; A15

So much talk about the weather -- can you believe how hot it is? -- and absolutely nothing to do about it. Nothing, that is, unless you happen to sell air conditioners or repair overheated cars or offer water by the case. If so, prepare to do business.

"This is likely going to be, for air conditioners, probably their best week in years," said Evan Gold, senior vice president of client services at Planalytics, which advises retailers on managing the effects of weather on their businesses.

By the end of this week, he estimates, 159 percent more air conditioners will sell in the Baltimore-Washington area than in the same period a year ago. Swimwear sales, he says, will be up 36 percent, sandals, 46 percent, and soft drinks, 16 percent.

Mother Nature helped make those figures somewhat dramatic: Last year, the Northeast experienced its third-coldest July in 115 years, Gold said, and air-conditioner sales were not so brisk.

The company alerted Washington area businesses 11 months ago that this summer would be different -- warmer, that is -- and many prepared.

The staff at a Lowe's in Chantilly got into position early, moving air conditioners and ceiling fans closer to the front door, where scorched customers could stumble in and pick them right up.

"We moved them last week because of the heat wave," said sales manager Josh Wilner. "This is a summer ritual."

At the Giant Food supermarket at Tivoli Square in Northwest Washington, manager Jack Eaton is keeping a barrel of ice and water out for the staff members who work outside. "The cashiers are getting hot, and the customers look needy," Eaton said. Sometimes he'll hand a bottle to a customer who passes by. He said business had been quiet in the early afternoons this week, although normally it's steady all day.

When customers show up, many want drinks. Eaton said he had sold about 50 percent more cases of water this week than normal in summer.

At 7-Eleven, the Big Gulps have turned into one long guzzle. Slurpee, Big Gulp and iced coffee sales in the area are up about 40 percent, compared with this time last year.

"People are thirsty," said Tom Brennan, sales and merchandising director in 7-Eleven's Chesapeake Division.

District resident Billy Greene doesn't get her son Cypress a Slurpee very often, but she made an exception Thursday at the 7-Eleven at 1400 Rhode Island Ave. NW. The heat made her do it. "This is one of his favorites," she said.

Six-year-old Cassandra Gomez reached for the biggest cup next to the Slurpee machine. When asked whether this was her first Slurpee for the summer, she paused doubtfully for a few minutes and whispered in her mother's ear. "Yes," she said finally.

Asfaw Gabriel, manager at All Make Auto Mechanic & Body in the District, said he and his staff can't work as much as they'd like because of the heat. With only a fan in the shop, they have to drink water and take breaks. But when an overheated car shows up, they're ready.

"This summer, we'll see more of those kind of problems," Gabriel said. "It's not over yet."

What's not so hot? Think lawn mowers. With lawns burnt to a crisp, there's little need to mow. Planalytics expects sales to drop 41 percent this week, compared with last year.

"Even enthusiastic gardeners have some difficulty mustering their gardening passion in 100 degree heat," Larry Hurley, the buyer for Behnke Nurseries' perennials department, said in an e-mail.

Passion is one thing; work, another. So Tony J. Olds, owner of Olds & Olds Lawn & Garden Service in the District, was planning to make his rounds as usual, heat or no heat.

"There isn't much you can do," he said. "You just go out and do it."

Tourists, an important source of business, are wilting, too. Dillon Theis, owner of Washington DC Tour Guide, said his company usually does 10 day tours per week and is down to about five. On Tuesday, he met a family tour group outside in the baking heat at Union Station. The kids sat down during the tour and said they wanted to go back to the hotel. He trudged with the family for hours through the city, showing monuments that were mostly empty of people.

"It was miserable," he said.

Any discussion of hot weather requires at least one tale of frying an egg on the sidewalk. But this is a special hot spell, requiring a better anecdote, and R.J. Bell has just the one. Bell, who owns a home-improvement company in Columbia, said that if it's 100 degrees on the ground, it will probably be 110 to 120 degrees on a roof.

How hot is that? He found out a couple of sweltering years ago.

It's hot enough, he discovered, to fry bacon.

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