Cool Summer Gives Retailers Blues

FOR many merchants in temperature-sensitive business lines, the summer of 1992 was a season of lost revenue.

"A total wipeout" is how Robert Levesque describes the effects of the unusually cool weather. He owns an ice cream truck that parks each summer on a Boston street corner.

"It's not just this truck, it's hundreds of other trucks" whose ice cream businesses were left out in the cold, Mr. Levesque laments. The recent hot spell helps, but he says it comes too late to make much difference.

At Water Country, a water park in Portsmouth, N.H., president Dick Samuels sounds more grateful for the burst of characteristic summer mugginess that dropped in recently.

"We made up some very good ground this week," he said in an interview Friday.

His business was hurt not only by bad weather, he said, but also by bad weather predictions. "It's been one of the worst forecasting years in my recorded history."

Showers had been forecast for Friday, for example, but he says the day was just as sunny and even more humid than the day before. Because of the predictions, he says, "We're doing about half as much business as yesterday."

The cool summer was a regional phenomenon, hitting mainly the Northeast and Midwest while the far West has been abnormally warm.

Eight states had their coldest July on record, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Analysis Center in Camp Springs, Md. Those states were Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Wisconsin.

The Climate Analysis Center attributes the cooler temperatures to several causes:

* The jet stream has been south of normal, bringing cooler Canadian air into the northern United States.

* The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 left airborne particles that reflect solar radiation.

* Heavy rains in winter and early spring left much land in the middle of the country unusually wet. Solar radiation went to evaporate moisture rather than generate heat. This also contributed to making this summer more cloudy and rainy than normal.

The lack of extremes this past winter and summer has meant lost sales for businesses that depend on helping people escape atmospheric angst.

"We are in the misery business. If we get benign weather for both seasons we lose a lot of money," says Thomas Mahoney, editor of Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration News in Detroit.

Sears Roebuck & Co. felt the impact on its sales of air conditioners, lawn-care equipment, and other seasonal items.

"During the late spring and early summer the cool weather across much of the country had cost us about $100 million in revenues," says Greg Rossiter, spokesman for the Chicago-based retail giant.

"We expect that the ceiling caved in on these guys in July and August," when sales should have been strong, Mr. Mahoney says, referring to air conditioner sellers in general. Studies have found "you need about three days and nights of sustained heat and humidity" to convince people they need an air conditioner, he says.

In many areas, this kind of sustained heat has not happened or has come so late that people may decide to wait for fall weather.

The picture is not all gloomy for the cooling business. Rossiter says Sears' repair business was busy on the West Coast. And about 80 percent of new single-family homes now come with central cooling, Mahoney says.

Similarly, not every ice cream seller had a hard summer, even in New England.

JoAnn Latzanakis, who owns a Baskin Robbins-31 Flavors Ice Cream Store in Cambridge, Mass., says the cool weather "didn't affect us at all."

At Can Am Sailcraft Inc., also in Cambridge, the cool weather if anything helped: "We sold a few more wet suits than we did last year," says administrator Mark Kappeler.

The nation's use of electricity, which stands to lose from cool summers, has seen a 0.7 percent decrease so far this year from the year before, says Peter Jump, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, which represents the US utilities. He says it is difficult to sort out how much of that drop is due to the weather.

Samuels of Water Country, meanwhile, is hoping the muggy spell will linger: "Another week and a half; that's all that I ask."

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