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When it rains, it pours all over sales – even of beer and mustard

Rick Cohen had planned to repaint the screens at his Transit Drive-In Theatre this year, as well as improve its landscaping and pave the front entrance. But those improvements will have to wait. The theater has had its worst season in years, thanks to this year’s windy, rainy weather. There was only one rain-free weekend during its peak season.
“It’s not easy, especially on days when the forecast changes by the hour,” Cohen said.

Rain, rain, go away. That’s the collective refrain from local business owners trying to recover from the dreary spring and summer that have left seasonal profits all wet. Festivals have suffered. Contractors have put off jobs. Restaurants have reduced inventory. Even sales of mustard and beer have slipped.

Business owners at the mercy of the weather say there is little they can do to hedge against the rain except pare expenses and wait for sunnier days.

“Weather absolutely affects retail sales. Seasonable, unseasonable, you name it,” said Laura Heller, editor of Retail Dive, a trade publication.

It began with a rainy spring – Western New York’s second wettest spring on record. Though summer temperatures averaged only slightly below normal, and total rainfall was about the same as last year, not a single day reached hotter than 90 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. There were no heat waves, no record highs and only 32 days when the thermometer got past the 80-degree mark.

Though retailers watch the weather closely and often use sophisticated weather-planning tools to calculate inventory, orders and staffing, sometimes it just isn’t enough.

“Weather isn’t super reliable or predictable, so when things go awry – like it pours all Labor Day weekend in wide swaths of the country – it is very bad for sales,” she said.

Perhaps the most vulnerable to mother nature’s whims are the region’s many outdoor festivals.

Just ask Drew Cerza, the man behind the National Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival.

“It’s such a risky business, these events. It’s nerve wracking,” he said. “You put your heart and soul into it for a year, and there’s nothing you can do about the weather.”

It rained for just 20 minutes during last weekend’s fest, and organizers had put great effort into making sure there were plenty of places to take cover when the skies opened up. But the mere threat of rain kept some people away. Rain in the Northtowns and Southtowns over the weekend – even though most of it didn’t reach the venue downtown – discouraged others from venturing out.

“Once people see the weather is gloomy or it’s supposed to rain, they change their plans,” Cerza said.

Making concessions

WNY Fun Foods sells concessions supplies such as french fries, dispenser napkins and disposable cups. Sales have been down and, judging by the smaller orders the company is receiving, they’ve been down for customers across the board, according to president Jon Schinaman. Like most other businesses, just about the only thing it can do is fund a good cushion during the good times to see it through the bad.

“When you’ve got a Friday night rained out at the racetrack, there’s not much you can do to make up for that,” Schinaman said. “But we’ve been through this before. We know we can weather the storm and come out strong financially.”

Riders and horses battle the rain during a training session at Buffalo Raceway in Hamburg in May. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News file photo)

The Hatch at Erie Basin Marina is a mainstay summertime lunch stop. But owner Molly Koessler would swear this year’s rains have hit at the most inopportune times – lunchtime, dinnertime and weekends. Even when it has been sunny, it has often been windy. That hasn’t made for the most pleasant dining experience at Koessler’s waterfront restaurants and
sales have suffered.

“You might get five minutes of rain, but that’s enough to scare people away,” said Koessler, who also owns William K’s at Erie Basin Marina, and banquet facility Acqua on the Niagara River.

She has coped by keeping inventory lower, placing smaller orders more often. To recoup, she’s looking ahead and working hard to plan fall wine dinners, scotch dinners and a packed holiday calendar at William K’s. But, like other businesses taking a hit this season, while Koessler’s expenses keep increasing, there is less money coming in to pay them.

Live musicians, a fixture at patio bars and outdoor venues, are paid whether they play or not. And rain does not pair well with electronic sound equipment.

Zak Ward is one of the more fortunate local musicians, having lost only three outdoor gigs to rain this summer. As a full-time performer with a family to feed, the lack of job security adds an extra element of stress.

“The toughest part is the constant uncertainty of not knowing if the venue is gonna pull the plug at the last minute,” Ward said.

Less scrupulous businesses withhold pay when rain cuts a performance short, striking a sour note with many local musicians who commit far in advance and honor the dates booked. That makes it less likely musicians will gamble on outdoor bookings in the future.

“Some type of restitution should come into play when a date is held and weather messes it up. All parties should lose equally, not just the musicians,” said Dick Bauerle, guitarist and vocalist for Buffalo Hall of Fame band Joyryde. “There may be some places that will have a major problem booking big acts next summer because of their policies,”

Beer sales not so hot

Western New Yorkers have had more than their fair share of picnics rained out this year. With fewer backyard barbecues, trips to the beach and camping trips, there are fewer coolers being stocked with beer and burgers.

Sahlen’s hot dogs are a summer staple in the local market. Good weather tends to bump up sales by up to 1.5 percent, while bad weather can push them down by just as much, according to Mark Battistoni, vice president of sales and marketing at the company. Sales this summer have been flat, possibly mitigated by launches of new product varieties and the company’s expansion into new markets.

March “rolled in like a lion and out like a lion,” setting the table for a “dismal summer,” said Steven Desmond, president of Heintz & Weber, which makes Weber’s horseradish mustard. After taking it on the chin during the spring and staying flat for most of the summer, the company is just now beginning to break even. It would’ve been worse if the company hadn’t expanded into Albany and, he said.

Even beer wasn’t safe. Just as hot weather can inspire more people to crack open a cold one, cool, wet weather can have a chilling effect on beer sales. This summer, that resulted in a 1 percent dip in off-premise sales, according to data firm Nielsen.

“Weather impact is never 100 percent clear, but industry consensus is that lousy weather is certainly no help,” said Eric Shepard, editor at Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication. Adding later, “This has been a soft summer for beer.”
Sales at Buffalo-headquartered Labatt USA mirrored the same trend.

“When we have a hot summer season, off-premise beer sales are typically stronger,” said Matt Goldman, channel marketing manager at Labatt USA.

Benjamin Alvarado talks to customer Nazahah Anan as he serves lunch at the Hatch at the Erie Basin Marina in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Contractors affected

The windy, wet conditions have pushed contractors far behind schedule. Aside from halting work completely, bad weather can damage building materials, waterlog earth that needs to be moved, even cause excavations to collapse.

Rain has cost Jimmy Camarda Jr. three exterior painting jobs this year. The owner of Buffalo-based ARC Real Property Management has also had to postpone two other jobs until next year and offer a 10 percent discount to make up for the inconvenience. He has been working on one particularly ornate wooden house in Allentown for three months alone.

Fortunately, he was able to secure some indoor kitchen and bathroom remodeling work, which he hopes will help offset his losses heading into the fall.

Rocks, Blocks & More, a garden center in North Tonawanda, has recorded its worst season in 17 years. It started off with total losses for April and half of May as customers’ yards flooded from all the rain. There’s little one can do to hedge against the weather, she said, and not much she can do now to make up for her earlier losses.

“What can you do?” said owner April Stefanski.

Though there’s not much local businesses can do to hedge against weather’s dampening effect on sales, most are confident they can weather the storm.

At Transit Drive-In in Lockport, owner Cohen is thankful that last year was one of the drive-in’s best seasons ever, leaving the company still in the black. But his planned theater investments will have to sit on the back burner for a while. He watches the weather on multiple platforms, then staffs and stocks inventory accordingly.

“After watching what’s happening in Houston, I suppose I shouldn’t be complaining. It could be worse. A lot worse,” said Cohen at Transit Drive-In. “At least we’re still here, and there’s always next season.”

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