Business

Winter storms impose high costs for business

Empty cubicles, as at Boston Business Printing on Tuesday in Boston, place a strain on businesses. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Empty cubicles, as at Boston Business Printing on Tuesday in Boston, place a strain on businesses.

Unless you sell groceries or rock salt, the past three weeks have been a tough time to do business in Massachusetts.

Companies in Greater Boston expect storms during the winter and many factor them into annual budgets. But few were prepared for the back-to-back-to-back storms that have pummeled the region with unprecedented snowfall over the last two weeks.

Virtually every kind of business, from technology firms to liquor distributors to real estate agencies to hospitals, are reeling from the historic storms. Those businesses are trying to overcome disruptions that make it hard for employees and customers to reach them, to get supplies and ship products, and to simply move all the snow out of the way.

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Widespread public transit failures, including a complete shutdown of the MBTA rail system Tuesday, have forced many businesses to allow people to work from home, or to shutter their operations without enough workers to staff them. Companies that remain open serve a trickle of customers compared with normal conditions.

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A single snow day costs the state’s economy a whopping $265 million, according to IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington. A “snow day” is one in which the storm forces the shutdown of businesses and state offices.

Much of the cost is shouldered by retailers and restaurants that lose business when their doors shut or customers huddle at home, said Doug Handler, the chief US economist for IHS.

Puritan & Company, a fine dining restaurant in Cambridge, felt the pinch. “We rely on people walking through the door,” said owner Will Gilson. “If it doesn’t happen, it makes it difficult to survive.”

Restaurants all over the city marketed snow specials as incentives for patrons to brave the cold. Many operated with skeleton crews Tuesday, choosing to stay open and serve a handful of customers instead of allowing food to spoil.

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Sales at Puritan & Company drop at least 80 percent on snow days. The eatery offered a $30 three-course prix fixe menu Monday and Tuesday, hoping to attract enough patrons to break even and continue employing its workers.

“We’re all trying to bribe our guests to come in,” Gilson said.

Emilio Ventouris, owner of Emilio’s Pizza in the South End, said his business is cut in half on snow days as pizza deliveries slow and fewer people visit the restaurant. The store remained open Monday and Tuesday, only closing during the statewide travel ban late last month.

“I have children,” Ventouris said. “I have to work.”

This week’s storm came at a particularly bad time for the real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle. The company is hosting groups of overseas clients interested in touring commercial properties around the region.

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“It’s not really the best week to be showing real estate in the city of Boston,” said managing director Jim Tierney. “The fundamentals of the market haven’t changed, but the glossy veneer looks a little different.”

The closure of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority rail system Tuesday created a ripple effect through the business community. Many workers rely on the subway to get to work, and patrons use it to move around in the snow.

Schools were closed Monday and Tuesday, forcing parents to scramble to find day care, or work from home while entertaining stir-crazy children.

Many employees of Cambridge-based Akamai Technologies were working from home, which has led to lost productivity for the Internet content delivery company.

“It’s like a miniature flu pandemic hitting an office,” said Andrew Ellis, chief security officer at Akamai. “On a regular snow day you might lose up to half a day of work. But this is different. With storms being so close together, it is starting to weigh on people.”

In the medical world, hospitals and clinics have canceled many services except emergencies and urgent care.

Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, which serves 530,000 patients, closes most of its 28 locations for routine care during big storms. But they try to remain open for urgent care appointments when possible, according to spokeswoman Carol Kerbaugh.

On days marked by travel bans, the health care practice relies on a 24-hour telephone help line and nine clinicians to advise patients worried about everything from fevers and flu to chest pains from the endless snow shoveling.

Dianne Bourque, a 62-year-old clinician who has worked there for 36 years, shows up even in the most extreme weather to take calls, often walking 7 miles to and from her home, said Maureen Skehill, supervisor of Harvard Vanguard’s medical phone lines.

Other companies grappled with a similar need to staff enough workers to provide limited, but important, services.

Boston Business Printing said its workload plunged 80 percent because most local companies that place orders have been closed for several days. But clients based elsewhere expect the work to be done or they’ll find another shop, said Sheryl Read, an owner of the financial district printer. Just three of 10 employees were working Tuesday.

Empty cubicles have placed a different kind of strain on businesses that offer services inside the workplace.

P&J Vending, a Hopkinton-based supplier of snacks and sodas to companies, universities, and hospitals in the Boston area, shut down Monday and made few deliveries Tuesday.

Nobody was working at the private firms to accept orders, said Jim Kelly, owner of the vending company. Since multiple snow days have forced workers to telecommute, they aren’t eating out of the vending machines, either, Kelly said.

He estimates business is down by 10 to 15 percent this winter, losses he won’t recoup.

“There’s no one in the businesses to buy anything,” Kelly said. “When people go back, they don’t buy two Snickers bars because they didn’t buy one yesterday.”

Even if businesses are lucky enough to experience a demand for products and have enough employees to operate, the troubles aren’t over. Delivery trucks have to reach them through snow-clogged streets.

Beverage distributors have fallen behind on deliveries, leading to depleted shelves at several local liquor stores. At Giles Wine & Spirits, which has locations in Arlington, Medford, and Woburn, manager Stefan Sigurjonsson said shipments have been erratic.

Genzyme Corp., the Cambridge biotech company, deals with a different kind of delivery problem when storms hit. It makes back-up arrangements with special couriers to get life-saving medicine to patients if regular mail is suspended.

“We were able to ship out a great deal of product before the storm,” said spokeswoman Lori Gorski. “To our knowledge, no patient has missed a treatment because of the weather.”

Meanwhile, the costs of plowing parking lots and shoveling snow are adding up.

Granite Telecommunications of Quincy has two lots to clear and snow removal costs could exceed $125,000 this winter, five times the normal expense. “Our costs go way up with all these storms,” said chief operating officer Rand Currier.

Ed Freni, director of aviation for the Massachusetts Port Authority, said the airport budgets for about 48 inches of snow a year. As of Tuesday evening, the airport had received 78 inches of snow this season.

Even though the recent storms have squeezed local businesses, Handler of IHS Global Insight said the US economy was hit harder by frigid temperatures last winter.

“We’re not there yet,” Handler said.

Deirdre Fernandes, Casey Ross, Beth Healy, Sacha Pfeiffer and Jon Chesto of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent Stefanie Friedhoff contributed to this report. Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna @globe.com.