My side of the counter

When the temps drop, business picks up

And they heard John exclaim, as he strode into sight,
“Sir, the line for the roof snow rakes forms on the right.”

A glimpse of what it looks like from the other side of the customer service counter:

• Friday, Dec. 15: “We had more than 20 people standing in line for two hours before the truck even arrived,” Mike said. They were waiting for the latest shipment of roof snow rakes. “That was before all this started,” Mike added, pointing outside.

So many people were milling about waiting for the truck that Mike quickly made a sign, “Line Forms Here For Snow Rakes,” and put it up so customers could stake their claims. As it was, when the truck finally showed up and pulled into the delivery area on the south side of the store, one guy who’d been toward the end of the line broke ranks and scurried around the corner, heading straight for it.

“He started bugging the driver – ‘Are there any snow rakes in this delivery? Can you get me one?’ John (Chip’s the guy who looks like a mirror image of his father; Mike has the lean profile of a marathon runner, which he is; and John is the brother who lifts weights at a local gym in his spare time, and it shows) had to go around the corner and make him get back in line,” Mike said.

Frentz and Sons went through 97 snow rakes in 6 hours. “It was Snow Rake Panic Day,” John says. It hadn’t even started snowing yet, but Mike says media stories (including those on this site), and particularly the TV's we’re-all-going-to-be-buried-alive-in-a-blizzard features caused everyone to drop what they were doing and hunt down a snow rake.

• “Saturday was Magnesium Chloride Panic Day,” John said. Rock salt is OK if you think your driveway will taste better with a little seasoning. If you want to actually melt snow and ice, you use something like calcium or magnesium chloride, because they don’t hurt your lawn or vegetation, continue working below the freezing point, and they mix with the water to keep it from re-freezing, so it can evaporate.

“We went through 300, 50-pound bags of calcium chloride from 1 p.m. Friday through noon Saturday,” Mike said. “ John’s son rented a truck and went to pick up another six pallets of magnesium chloride – we’d also already gone through 5 pallets (that’s 500 bags) of rock salt and magnesium chloride.”

• John and Mike follow weather reports and subscribe to an Internet weather service. They try to make educated guesses about what the weather will be like, but John’s experience tells him no one really can predict the weather more than two or three days out, tops.

They follow the weather through personal interest, but also to keep their shelves properly stocked. “That’s the problem,” John said. “ At best, they can predict the weather accurately two or three days in advance, but it sometimes can take a week to get an order delivered.” Mike agreed, noting most areas stores share the same small handful of suppliers, who get buried with orders during snowstorms.

“So far we’ve done OK,” Mike said. “Like with the snow rakes – I jumped on the computer when so many people started showing up, checked our supplier’s stock, saw he had 97 left, and took them all.”

This is a risky strategy and it can backfire, as John well knows. He went into his office and returned with a laminated remembrance – a newspaper clipping from March 1998. It was a picture of him standing in the middle of a wall full of unsold snow shovels. “We got whacked that year,” John said.

• This year, Mike said he’s already restocked that wall of shovels twice, and was about to do it again. “That can be weird,” Mike said. “Sometimes we see the same people come in every year and buy a new shovel. Snow shovels aren’t easy to break – we keep wondering what happened to the one they bought last year. But we keep ordering dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens because you never know what your suppliers will have and we need to be ready.”

• “In the ‘60s, during a big snow, business would just quit,” John said. “People couldn’t get out of their houses, their streets weren’t plowed anyway, so they just wouldn’t try.” Today there are more people living in Royal Oak and storm damage from problems like ice dams is better publicized, so business comes alive.

“We’ve taken between 300 and 400 calls just today,” Mike said, and the store only had been open just over six hours. Other items moving very quickly include light bulbs (“tons of light bulbs”), electric space heaters, and plumbing supplies. “I dunno,” Mike said with a shrug, when asked about the plumbing supplies. “There’s something about the holidays. People tend to do a lot of plumbing work the week before Christmas. Maybe they get that week off work.”