BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The purveyors of winter-weather supplies in Vermont say they're hoping a massive snowstorm will prevent this year from becoming the second bust in a row.
Many people in the winter sports business have yet to recover from the light snowfall last winter, and spring arrived weeks earlier than normal.
This winter has been up and down -- more down lately after two big January thaws. Ski retailers this week were looking toward a storm churning up the East Coast that forecasters are calling a "bomb" because of its expected explosive force.
The storm's shrapnel, consisting of up to a foot of snow, was forecast to land on parts of Vermont, with heavier accumulations farther south. That's good news, merchants say, because the fortunes of many businesses that cater to winter vacationers rise and fall in tandem with the weather. That's especially true of stores in the shadows of big ski areas including Sugarbush and Stowe Mountain Resort.
"Snowstorms are directly related to the traffic we see," says Seth Thomas, owner of Infinite Sports in Waitsfield, Vt.
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Snow over Christmas week prompted a brief but welcome stampede of customers buying accessories and equipment, Thomas says. If forecasts for Friday and Saturday's storm prove correct, that would launch a more normal second half of winter, unlike 2012's premature spring that sent temperatures into the 80s in March.
"February and March are our snowiest months. This is the start of our snow season," Thomas says.
At Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield, store manager Craig Richardson says he noticed similar patterns to those at Infinite Sports. After a late start, winter got off to a bang during the Christmas and New Year's holiday when back-to-back snowstorms had resorts swimming in luxurious powder.
"That made everybody really happy. Everybody was psyched. Everyone was smiling. The skiing was phenomenal," Richardson says.
But then the thaws and the subzero cold hit, turning the remaining snow into a layer of ice. That slowed sales, except for traction devices for boots.
"The conditions are so icy, you need the micro-spikes on your boots," Richardson says.
Richardson says the weather gods would be forgiven if the promised storm materializes, especially since it's coming just a week before Presidents Day weekend and school holidays.
Even if the bulk of the snow falls in southern New England, that would be a good thing, because it would get people there in the mood to ski, the Vermont outfitters say.
"They're having a lot of snow in Boston. That's going to drive people up here," Richardson says.
Resort operators who have a lot of snowmaking equipment say they are partly insulated from the whims of winter thaws and freezes.
"I'd say it's been pretty steady. We've had good temperatures," says Karen Boushie, spokeswoman for ski resort Smugglers' Notch.
The Christmas week snowstorms helped immensely, and cold temperatures between the thaws meant snow guns could crank out the powder.
"And lately, it's settled into a typical weather pattern where we're getting a couple inches every day," she says.
Still, Boushie says she is watching storm forecasts with a growing sense of happy anticipation.
Away from the resorts, the Alpine Shop in South Burlington, Vt., has been affected by the iffy winter weather, says co-owner Andy Kingston. The correlation between weather and sales is not as strong as at shops directly at the resorts, he says.
Kingston says the Alpine Shop had a surge of business during the snowy week after Christmas, but the rush since has waned amid the thaws. Still, he predicts the season will be better than last year.
If the snowstorm arrives Friday as forecast, the Alpine Shop's lease business could boom, as families on Presidents Day vacations need equipment to hit the mountains.
Kingston says despite the lack of snow on the ground in the Champlain Valley during the week, conditions were surprisingly good in the mountains.
"I was just testing skis with my staff at Stratton," he says, "and they had really good snow."
Matt Sutkoski, Burlington (Vt.) Free Press