For Georgia’s economy, storm like a head wind

But while cold and brief, its impact could linger for some businesses

No shoes came off the rack. No plastic slid through the card reader. And no workers showed up to earn their hourly wage. The snow and ice that shut down metro Atlanta froze both ends of commerce at Abbadabba’s.

Five stores plus the corporate offices in Tucker were shuttered last week, effectively zeroing out sales while most of the 30 employees went without pay.

“One snow day is a fun day,” said Kristin Smith, chief financial officer for the Atlanta-based footwear seller. “After three days, you start to get anxious.”

Across metro Atlanta, the storm cost upward of $300 million in unrecoverable retail sales, services rendered and wages, estimated Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University.

Planes were grounded. Stores and offices were closed. Visitors couldn’t get to Atlanta. Trucks didn’t make deliveries. Produce went bad. Hourly workers didn’t get paid.

Those losses are nowhere near enough to ice up a roughly $200 billion-a-year economy, but they are sufficient to chill growth for the quarter, Dhawan said.

For the overall economy, it was like a head wind — cold but brief, said Dhawan. “The optimistic forecast is for personal income to grow at a 4 percent rate and this could take it to 3.5 percent,” he said.

Some of the week’s losses will be made up.

If you postponed a haircut, you’ll still get one. If you didn’t venture out for groceries, you’ll probably buy more next week. “But some things — like restaurants that are closed — won’t see it all made up that way,” he said.

And some operations can go on without opening a store or office at all.

“Knowledge-based” companies, whose workers require just a laptop, Internet connection and perhaps a phone have an advantage, said Adrian Cronje, chief investment officer at Balentine.

Offices of the Atlanta-based wealth management firm were shut on Monday and Tuesday, but the work continued from homes, he said. “I feel sorry for people who rely on foot traffic.”

Other businesses scrambled to make up ground.

All five of the eateries owned by Fifth Group Restaurants were closed Monday. Co-owner Robby Kukler braved the roads to Costco to pick up steak and chicken. He rolled down Buford Highway to purchase tortillas. Arrangements were made to pick up some staffers who couldn’t get in on their own.

Tuesday evening, three of the restaurants were open and doing about double their normal business, he said. “That did not make up for being closed Monday. You are still talking about tens of thousands of dollars of sales that did not occur,” Kukler said.

And most restaurant employees are paid hourly or with tips or both, he said.

Chris Albano, owner of Stars and Strikes Family Entertainment Centers, got his three bowling alleys open Wednesday afternoon. Most of his 75 employees are paid only when they work.

Leagues were supposed to start up last week, which meant a larger loss. Albano was hoping that by the weekend, roads would be clear and people would be hungry for activities like bowling. “But making up the losses will be tough. When you miss a day, you miss a day.”

Dennis Dean said the Atlanta catering company that bears his name lost roughly 40 percent of its revenue for the week when a series of events were canceled.

“We’re a $3 million company so that’s a lot to us,” Dean said. “Some of it will get rescheduled. Maybe we’ll get half of it back.”

Transportation and logistics — in many ways the pumping heart of the Atlanta economy — were for a time virtually paralyzed. Hundreds flights were canceled and crowds of passengers slept in the airport. Operations had returned to normal as the weekend approached — with the promise of thousands of tourists coming for trade shows and the Falcons-Packers playoff game.

Yet it is the roads that carry most of metro Atlanta’s goods and people — and it was there that an icy tourniquet clamped down hardest on the lifeblood of retail and manufacturing.

Trucks carry 88 percent of the freight moving in Georgia, over 1 million tons a day — and most of that in or through Atlanta, said Ed Crowell, CEO of Georgia Motor Truck Association. “For a couple of days, that dropped nearly to zero.”

A typical grocery store averages 80 truck deliveries a week, he said.

The business world, too, depends on the steady flow of parcels. UPS, which delivers more than 15 million packages a day, has nearly 5,000 trucks and vans covering Georgia and the Carolinas, plus more than 300 tractor-trailer rigs. For days they weren’t moving.

On Wednesday, the company started making deliveries — only most customers weren’t there to take them, said UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg.

Those inefficiencies will smooth out in a few days, she said. “I don’t mean to sound smug, but we are used to this. We deal with weather impacts all the time.”

But most businesses in metro Atlanta do not — and small businesses especially are vulnerable. Often using today’s cash-flow to pay tomorrow’s bills, smaller companies may not have the financial cushion needed to absorb shocks.

Abbadabba’s, a small, family-owned firm, can weather a week without revenues, but it cannot afford to pay workers for that time, Smith said. “We are trying to figure out how to get them some extra hours to make it up in a fair way,” she said.

Jeff Carr, owner of Status Custom Shoppe, was nervous about closing his Atlanta upholstery business. On Wednesday, he took the 30-mile-plus drive from Canton to the shop.

His seven-worker company picks up furniture, upholsters it and brings it back to the customer. Every day they are closed adds to the backlog, he said. Moreover, about half his employees are paid according to piece work, so they can’t make money when they can’t get to the shop.

Carr is hoping that he doesn’t lose business, just shifts some orders a week. And the more that happens across the economy, the less damage done by the shutdown.

The equation runs to some serious money for Whole Foods, which has seven stores, a distribution center and 1,300 employees in metro Atlanta. Just one was open Monday. Three were open Tuesday — with limited hours.

Wednesday, all opened but they closed early. In addition to sales that they won’t make, Whole Foods also will lose its investment on food that spoils, said spokeswoman Darrah Horgan.

Softening the blow were the extra sales in the run-up to the storm, when stores were mobbed with customers socking in supplies. And the storm itself helped some businesses hold their own.

The Westin Peachtree Plaza found itself with some no-shows at the start of the week — travelers who didn’t make it to town. But the hotel also found itself with guests whose employers wanted to make sure they had access to downtown.

Both CNN and Georgia Power put up scores of employees in the hotel, said Ed Walls, Westin’s general manager. The hotel restaurant and bar also did well.

“On Monday night, the college [football] championship game was on television and everybody ordered room service,” Walls said. “A lot of downtown restaurants were closed. We had kind of a captive audience.”

That experience — unexpected bookings by locals making up for at least some of the visitors who didn’t make it — was likely true for many hotels, said Tim Hart, president and CEO of Rubicon, an Atlanta company that gathers data for the travel industry. But many large groups that had made reservations backed out, according to Rubicon’s survey of 204 hotels.

This weekend, of course, should be busy for the hotels, thanks to two trade shows and the Falcons game. And a normal January week is just ahead, with consumers in stores, employees in offices, workers in shops and the roads crowded with cars.

Of course, winter does have a few months left, said Crowell of the trucking association. “If we get snowed on again in three days, then we start all over.”

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