Winter Stirs Up a Sales Storm Of Plows, Rock Salt, and Shovels

THE fact that a snowplow broke in front of Bruce Arrington's house last winter is not newsworthy, except that he is the Millbury, Mass., Finance Committee chairman, a key player in deciding whether the town buys a new $60,000 vehicle.

``I couldn't have planned it better myself,'' recalls highway surveyor Joe Chase.

Millbury's need to replace overworked vehicles is typical. Pent-up demand, a better economy, last year's heavy snowfall, and this year's predictions for even more have caused Northeast communities to update fleets of snow-moving equipment in record numbers. Manufacturers and retailers of seasonal products, such as snow blowers, shovels, and rock salt, have seen record-breaking sales ... before winter begins!

Nowhere is this trend more evident than at Flink Manufacturing Company of Streator, Ill., a snowplow and spreader-attachment maker that sells mostly to the Northeast.

``This is absolutely the best year I've seen in 25 years in the industry,'' exclaims David Foulker, marketing manager. ``As of Dec. 1, we are 34 percent ahead of last year's record year in sales of snowplows and spreaders. For the first time since '78-'79, we've gone to a two-shift, six-day operation.''

Flink has sold out of custom-made plows and spreaders, the kind Millbury buys for heavy-duty work and that make up 70 percent of the business. The equipment lasts 20 years and costs up to $6,000 and $8,000, respectively. ``If we get an order today, delivery will be in March,'' Mr. Foulker says. ``Surprisingly, we could get to the point where delivery is June.''

``Towns were stranded last year without equipment or with old equipment that sometimes failed,'' says Stephen Ishihara, a salesman for Dyar Sales & Machinery Company of North Reading, Mass., a Flink dealer that serves Massachusetts and New Hampshire. ``So someone who hasn't ordered for awhile is back in the fold.''

DYAR customers are placing orders up to two months earlier than normal. ``The closer you get to the snow flying, the worse [it is] - it's a snowball effect,'' Mr. Ishihara says.

A ``snowball effect'' literally describes what happened in the rock-salt industry last winter.

Despite popular belief, there were no shortages of highway-deicing salt last year, says Catherine Bolton, spokeswoman for Akzo Nobel Salt Inc. of Clarks Summit, Penn. Rather, snowstorms held up transportation of the salt. Eventually, the National Guard helped bring salt to some municipalities. Then, on March 12, a mine in Geneseo, N.Y., suffered an earthquake and flooding, forcing it to close for six weeks.

This year, steps have been taken by Akzo, the industry, and communities to improve rock-salt availability and distribution:

* Akzo increased inventory by 20 percent; added 11 stockpile locations to its 100; computerized locations, making weigh-ins and pickups quicker; stepped up operations at Ohio and Louisiana mines; and relocated stockpiles at the Geneseo mine.

* Many municipalities have increased storage capacity for salt.

* More ships will transport imported rock salt to the East Coast.

Even though orders are 20 percent higher than last year, Akzo feels prepared, Ms. Bolton says. Last winter, 90 percent of Akzo's customers ran out of salt by early February.

The Rock Salt Institute of Alexandria, Va., reports that sales of highway-deicing salt in the first half of 1994 totaled 74 percent of sales for all of 1993.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago, the nation's largest snow-blower retailer, is having a banner year. In January, Sears ordered double the number of snow blowers as last year - an all-time record year - and triple the number two years ago, says spokeswoman Vaneta Rogers. ``Doubling inventory was a bold move, and we've gone way beyond that,'' she says. ``By the end of August, we'd beaten '92 sales. Nationwide, we'll double '93 by the end of December.''

In the Northeast, many Sears stores have sold out of snow blowers. ``Industry demand is exceeding availability of component parts,'' Ms. Rogers explains. ``Sales by the end of November were four times higher than all of last year.''

Sears's customers also can't get enough snow shovels, snow tires, lawn-tractor snow attachments, and chain saws for cutting branches. ``We were carrying more than three times as many shovels as sold last year, and by [Dec. 1], we'd surpassed '93 sales,'' Rogers says, adding that Sears sold more snow tires the two days after Thanksgiving than any other day this year.

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