For most businesses, coming snowstorm means a coming headache

From The Morning Call:

Hardware stores that hawk rock salt and landscapers who moonlight by plowing snow may be hearing a cha-ching sound at the approach of a major snowstorm, but for most Lehigh Valley businesses, keeping the wheels of commerce grinding is a challenge at the very least.

Some, like Keith Royal, owner of Ruby’s Floral, might call it a headache.

Royal let out a nervous laugh thinking about this week. He said his company, which has operations in Bethlehem and a retail store in downtown Allentown, is at the mercy of flower wholesalers.

“We are getting emails and phone calls that they are not running for the rest of the day,” Royal said. He said the earliest a wholesaler could promise delivery is Wednesday afternoon.

“It really does put a hindrance on our business this week,” he said. “We are productive; it’s just that we’re not here.”

His biggest worry: a wedding in Philadelphia this weekend, and the flowers have not yet arrived.

“So I might be taking a road trip [to wholesalers],” Royal said.

Most businesses across the Lehigh Valley face some major decisions with the approach of a major snowstorm: Should they open? How many employees should they require to come to work? How should they handle telecommuters? Can they get shipments in or out during the storm?

Some have been planning for the nor’easter, which could dump up two feet of snow on the Lehigh Valley, for days. Supermarket chain Wegmans, which has three Lehigh Valley stores, convened its storm team last week, led by its asset protection department, said spokeswoman Jo Natale.

“In our case, it is going to affect basically every state in which we have stores, one way or another,” she said.

Wegmans upped its orders of key staples such as — you guessed it batteries, bread, milk and eggs — in advance of the storm to handle the pre-snow rush and moved up deliveries of goods that would have arrived Tuesday and Wednesday. It also moved mobile generators into place where power outages are most likely.

Wegmans’ Allentown store is the only one with a hard-wired back-up generator, she said. Stores in Lower Nazareth and Hanover townships in Northampton County have back-up power to keep coolers going and a few lights on, but not enough to open the stores in a power outage. Neither is in an area where that frequently happens, she said.

Store managers also develop skeleton crews of key personnel who are close enough to stores to keep them open, even during a blizzard. The chain considers its stores essential public resources because they are places the public can obtain prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, as well as food.

Unless a store sustains major damage, or has to dispose of a large amount of spoiled food, winter storms are basically a wash for the grocery store chain financially, she said.

“You get a lot of business right before the storm and then it’s crickets for a few days afterward,” she said.

That’s also true for the U.S. economy as a whole, say economic experts.

“There are winners and losers and it cancels out,” said Stephen Fuller, an economist and public policy professor at George Mason University. “None of it will make the difference between 2.3 percent [Gross Domestic Product] growth and 2.4 percent GDP growth.”

Losers include airlines, which see diminished business due to canceled flights, municipalities that must spend more on overtime and rock salt, florists such as Royal, and restaurants whose customers can’t get out. Grocery stores typically get a little more business, Fuller said, as consumers stock up.

There are also insurance costs related to storm damage. The harsh 2014-2015 winter inflicted losses of $4.6 billion in the U.S., of which $3.4 billion was insured, according to the National Weather Service, citing a report by Munich Reinsurance America, Inc.

Technology has helped blunt the economic impact of major storms by allowing telecommuting, Fuller said, even if that means parents trying to make business decisions while settling sibling arguments and making hot cocoa.

Allentown technology company Trifecta Technologies gives all its employees tools that allow them to operate anywhere in the world without skipping a beat, so a snowstorm is really a minor issue, said Matt Frankenfield, the company’s director of IT services and infrastructure.

A prolonged power outage is about the only thing that would put a kink in the company’s plans. Its laptops provide about five-plus hours of battery life, but employees who lose WiFi would be left unconnected.

“This whole scenario relies on internet access,” Frankenfield said.

And as long as the power stays on, there is some evidence that major storms are a boost to companies that provide streaming services and online shopping, said Chris G. Christopher Jr., director of global and consumer economics with IHS Economics.

“Even though people can’t go out to the mall, there is a lot you can do from home,” he said.

There could be some temporary economic blips. March job numbers might be a tad lower as companies postpone hiring and workers are idled, and a slowdown in construction could push down home building and construction activity, said Ryan Sweet, an economist with Moody’s Analytics.

Hourly workers who aren’t on the schedule because their employers closed will lose some wages, he said.

The storm could also cause a minor delay in the ongoing demolition of the former Kraft Heinz Co. plant in Upper Macungie Township. Chris Ciliberti, a Ridgeline Property Group partner and head of the company’s Northeast operations, said the firm is mobilizing snow removal equipment in advance of the storm. “The storm will probably cause a delay of a day or two,” said Ciliberti, whose company is leveling the Kraft facility to make way for two warehouses.

One company that doesn’t anticipate closing is Acopian Technical Co., which makes power supplies used by a variety of businesses. For its 60 years in business, the Palmer Township company has had a three-day guarantee to deliver customers’ orders on up to five units.

“If we know there is something that is scheduled to ship on the day that it is impacted by the storm, we will get the shipment out earlier,” said Alex Karapetian, Acopian’s sales and marketing director. “So our customers’ schedules don’t get delayed by the storm.”

Acopian is also unique in that it has manufacturing operations in the Lehigh Valley and Melbourne, Fla. The company prepares accordingly when storms strike, whether it’s snow here or a hurricane in the Sunshine State, he said.

“We’re never closed,” Karapetian said, though he said the 30 employees in Palmer aren’t necessarily mandated to come to work in a snowstorm.

And of course, Allentown is home to the corporate headquarters of one high-profile local company where most employees are required to come to work in the snow. That’s PPL Corp., whose job it is to keep the lights on for everybody else.

The company has a time-tested plan that kicks in whenever a major storm approaches, said spokesman Joe Nixon. PPL has a housing and feeding team that arranges overnight accommodations and sustenance for workers who will be on call 24-7 as well as linemen coming in from outside the area.

To make sure employees stay well-fed, PPL makes arrangements with local restaurants and caterers as well as caterers from outside the state, in case a storm is so severe local eateries can’t open.

The electric utility’s storm center has been in up and running since the weekend.

“The mindset here is we have to be here for our customers 24-7 every day of the year,” he said.

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