February was roaring into March when Holly Williams bought her first snow shovel, something to replace the garden scoop she had used to dig out her car after this winter's previous storms. Walking a half-mile home from a Bethesda hardware store, she carried the shovel like a picket sign. She thought the message was clear: I surrender.
But viewed from different angles, the shovel revealed other messages. Spending habits have been altered: That was the interpretation of Jim Beckett, a manager for Strosniders Hardware, which sold the shovel. Getting the goods once conditions have become adverse can be a challenge: That was a connection made by Rick Boettinger, president of the distributing company that shipped the shovel to Strosniders. Coming up with needed resources long after seasonal projections have been eclipsed can be complicated: That was Steve Oas, president of Emsco Group, the company that manufactured the shovel.
All of these messages, delivered in many ways, have reached almost everyone in the Washington region, which in its northern stretches has experienced the second-snowiest winter since the National Weather Service started keeping local records 133 years ago. As winter lingers, the signs get clearer.
"This time last year, people were spending their money in here on garden stuff," said Beckett, who is in charge of seasonal purchasing at Strosniders. "We're not getting that now."
This year, gallons of windshield wiper fluid sat at the head of the checkout lines -- an impulse buy, like batteries or chewing gum at a supermarket. Also this year, as many as 60 people stood in lines for sump pumps and wet vacuums during periods of snow melt. And this year, sales of such winter goods as shovels were up "several hundred percent," according to Strosniders manager Craig Smith.
Most businesses, however, don't deal in snow shovels and haven't benefited as Strosniders has. A George Mason University study of the 1996 Washington blizzard found that retailers lost significant sales in the week following the storm and stopped hiring. They made up their losses within two months, however, and employment bounced back to normal.
A key difference between that storm and this winter is that in the past four months, repeated storms of varying severity have struck, giving businesses little respite from the damage to bottom lines.
Restaurants have been among the hardest hit. People who didn't buy a car one weekend because of snow might have bought one the next; they probably didn't eat an extra meal out at a restaurant.
"You can't make up sales," said Joe Barbera, owner of Aida Bistro & Deli in Columbia, which closed two days during the Presidents' Day weekend storm and had to throw out food that went bad during those days. "Once you lose the night, you don't get it back."
Other sectors have reported similar financial hits, which have come from a variety of directions. Pickles and Ice Cream, a store in Pentagon Row that sells maternity clothes, estimated it lost about $15,000 in revenue after closing for four days and having perhaps 15 more days this winter when there were almost no customers because of icy roads.
The John Akridge Co., which manages office buildings in the District and Virginia, has spent $37,000 in overtime and other expenses to keep building entryways clear. Acquire Wireless LLC, an Internet access provider for rural Virginia, has suffered because contractors haven't been able to get to would-be clients to install the service.
To make ends meet, Acquire Wireless contractors have offset losses through a new, temporary venture: They've been snapping up snow shovels and digging out other people for cash.
The shovel that Williams bought arrived at Strosniders via Koll Distributors, a company that buys directly from manufacturers and ships goods to stores. Most years, supplying winter products is relatively straightforward: Stores order in the late summer and early fall; the goods are delivered in October, and that's that.
But in winters with big snowstorms, especially multiple ones, the dynamic gets complicated. Stores place orders with distributors for such items as shovels when storms are forecast.
The distributors try to anticipate storms and place orders directly with manufacturers shortly before the storms are expected to reach the area. As a result, truck deliveries often must battle nasty road conditions.
"When a storm hits, it ends up being a major scramble," said Boettinger, president of Koll Distributors. "It's a lot of work keeping the pipeline full. We buy from Erie, Pa. If they're getting hit with weather, then the drive time gets affected."
At Columbia-based National Business Products, the business of delivering office furniture has been a "nightmare," according to owner Gary Porter.
"You know how it is getting to work," he said. "Imagine how much fun it is making 20 deliveries in a day. And every time we thought we were in the clear, we got another four inches of snow."
For the Holly Williamses of the Washington area, the imagination doesn't need to stretch that far. She bought the shovel, remember, to dig out her car. But when she went to Strosniders, she walked a half-mile to and from her house because she didn't want to risk losing her parking space at home. After battling traffic and road conditions on the way home from work, she didn't want to further test her nerves by sacrificing one of the few remaining spaces not occupied by snow piles.
"I've been walking more lately," she said.
And counties and municipalities have been plowing and salting more. After the Presidents' Day weekend storm, Maryland road crews cleared 2 billion cubic feet of snow -- enough to fill a caravan of trucks extending end-to-end from Washington to Boston. All that costs money, of course -- about $30 million for that storm alone. Given that the state budgeted $21 million for snow removal for the entire year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) had to ask the federal government for disaster relief.
At the local levels, counties and municipalities have their own shortfalls to reconcile. During his state of the county speech, Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D) used a shovel as a prop and reminded listeners that snow removal costs were over budget -- and that was before February, a month in which 39.8 inches fell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, making it the snowiest February since 1870.
The District reported that it has spent at least $6.3 million on snow removal -- more than twice what it budgeted for the year. That figure doesn't include catch-up trash pickup, more extensive pothole repair or revenue from traffic tickets that weren't issued. Anne Arundel County budgeted $300,000 this year to remove the average snowfall of about 17 inches; the county's expenses were approaching $2.5 million before Thursday's snowfall to remove the nearly 60 cumulative inches the county has gotten this year.
Steve Oas, with Emsco Group, said predicting snowfall and guessing at budgets is a game of chance, and this year, everyone -- including manufacturers of seasonal equipment like his own company -- was wrong. The faulty guesses don't hurt him, though.
The company can always make more shovels, he said, but managing manufacturing schedules gets tricky because the company likes to work in advance of the season, just as local governments must budget their expenditures in the spring and summer.
"We're clearly into our spring calendar right now," he said.
It might be spring at the Pennsylvania factory, but March still means winter this year in Washington. Williams, who moved to Chevy Chase from Atlanta last year, said she has finally resigned herself to the season.
"I thought I'd get used to it and build up a tolerance," she said. "I haven't."
Staff writers Christian Davenport, Dana Hedgpeth, Nelson Hernandez and David Nakamura contributed to this report.