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Winners, losers in polar vortex

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Updated: March 3, 2014 4:57PM



So who are the winners and losers in this record-breaking cold snap that has enveloped most of the country in the deep freeze temperatures of a polar vortex?

It’s hard to imagine anyone could benefit from such a prolonged spell that’s closed schools; snarled auto, train and airline transportation nationwide; and has folks feeling like prisoners in their homes against snow, ice and frostbite.

But as actor Charlie Sheen once said, some are clearly “Winning!”

They include home-improvement and hardware stores selling shovels and salt, snow blowers, space heaters and home-repair goods; plumbers dealing with burst pipes.

“We’ve definitely had a pretty big surge in contractors, businesses and residential building owners coming in to grab salt and shovels and all types of weatherization kits, and consumers coming in for heaters,” said Tony Stowers, assistant manager at the Ace Hardware at 440 N. Orleans.

Retailers that sell coats, boots, hats, scarves, gloves and the like are winners, as are snow plowing and auto towing companies.

“Most definitely the do-it-yourself stores like Home Depot are winners, and retailers selling seasonal goods,” said Joe DeRugeriis, a spokesman for Planalytics Inc., the Pennsylvania-based business weather intelligence company.

“Winter apparel sales have been huge, and it sounds obvious, but when we look at sales compared to last year, they’re just flying off the shelves,” he said.

The firm estimates the U.S. economy took a $5 billion hit from the deep freeze the first week of January, based on lost productivity and consumer spending, and higher heating bills. It says final figures for January will be much higher.

“Losers? We typically see restaurants take a hit, and mall-based retailers, because there are less people going to the mall and making those discretionary purchases — although there’s a big uptick in online, as people are stuck inside,” DeRugeriis said.

So mall to main street retailers, restaurants to entertainment venues, are suffering, although such venues as movie theaters and ice skating rinks will see some increase. Also feeling pain are many service-oriented businesses that may depend on walk-ins, and those selling summer products.

“We haven’t taken a huge hit because we offer fresh juices as well, but overall, businesses selling frozen products are taking a hit right now,” said Sarah Lieb, manager of Starfruit frozen yogurt, at 1745 W. Division in Ukrainian Village.

Some businesses, however, say their loyal clients come in rain, sleet or snow.

“I’ve been in the salon business for many years, and I never worry about the weather,” said Valincia Saulsberry of Salon 64, at 1064 W. Bryn Mawr in Edgewater, an original cast member of the reality TV series “Chicagolicious.”

“January has always been a peak month for me because my existing clients are in for a treat for the new year. I prepare a smorgasboard of hydrating and conditioning treatments that the hair craves,” Saulsberry said.

Brisk business is being enjoyed by local companies offering auto towing, auto parts and repair services.

AAA was getting about 250 calls an hour during last week’s cold snap, and more than 600 calls an hour during the cold spell the first week of January, according to spokeswoman Beth Mosher, who said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

AAA responds with its own fleet of tow trucks to city calls, contracting with local towing firms for all other calls.

“So that entire industry is seeing a tremendous increase, whether they work for us or partner with us,” she said. “We’ll also likely see a great deal of tire repairs from potholes, new batteries, and other auto services.”

Other cold spell winners are travel agencies.

Pam Carroll, owner of Gadabout Travel in Palos Hills, said her firm has “been swamped, swamped, swamped” this month, her business doubling December numbers.

“This is our busiest time of year anyway. The cold weather is just the icing on the cake. Everybody is just done with it,” Carroll said.

In the losers category, add stressed Chicago Public Schools parents who have had to arrange care for children as schools closed twice this month, for two days each time.

But some hardy Chicagoans are unfazed by the below-zero temperatures, which AccuWeather.com says won’t go away in most parts of the U.S. anytime soon.

“We’re Chicagoans. We’re used to it,” said Susan Blakes, 62, of Roseland, who kept four grandkids home from school an extra day during the first cold spell.

“Weather doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. On one of the coldest days this month, I wanted a particular kind of yarn. I took public transportation all the way downtown to get it at my favorite yarn store. I just bundled up.”

Contributing: Donna Vickroy

Email: mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Maudlynei



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