News: Analysis & Commentary
THE FARMERS' ALMANACS START A STORM
Pam Johnson has seen the future, and it's frosty. In October, she went snow-shovel shopping after seeing the Old Farmer's Almanac prediction of huge snowfalls for the winter of 1995. "After reading that," says the 32-year-old Nashua (N.H.) nurse, "I decided if it's going to snow real hard, I'm going to have a good shovel." Johnson wasn't the first in line, either: She bought one of the last four shovels in the store.
Call it the Almanac Effect. The nation's several Farmer's Almanacs all are predicting a tough winter this year. The Old Farmer's Almanac, the best-known, forecasts "near record amounts of snow" for "the upper Great Plains, Great Lakes, New York, New England, and much of the Appalachians as well as the higher elevations of the western part of the country."
Of course, no one knows how many people really believe the almanacs. But some companies think that such prophecies--plus the memory of last year's heavy snows--have sent consumers scrambling to buy anything that clears the white stuff. "There's a certain amount of panic in the market," says Michael Thuecks, a vice-president at Ariens Co., which expects to triple its snowblower sales this year. "We love the Farmer's Almanac."
And why not? Sears, Roebuck & Co. says it expects to double its snowblower sales this season. Toro Co. says sales for its quarter that ended Oct. 28 rose 52%, to $206 million--with half the increase coming from booming snowblower sales. The International Snowmobile Industry Assn. reports that sales of the gas-powered trailblazers are up 46% so far this year, after five years of slushy 4% increases. And widespread shortages of road salt last winter have prompted local governments to stock up: The Salt Institute estimates that producers sold 12.5 million tons of rock salt in the first six months this year--up 23% from the year-ago period. Even snowplow sales are up.
So just how accurate is the almanac? Depends on which one you mean. In addition to the Old Farmer's Almanac, published in Dublin, N.H., there's the Lewiston (Me.)-based Farmers' Almanac, and, out of New York City, Harris' Farmer's Almanac. Plus other almanacs are published regionally.
RIGHT AS RAIN? As a bunch, the almanacs are rarely unequivocal--and admit to being frequently fallible. Despite missing the warm early winter of 1993, "we did get the rest of the winter nearly right," says John Pierce, publisher of the Old Farmer's Almanac. And Peter E. Geiger, editor of the Farmers' Almanac, acknowledges missing a big storm in April. "But we had all the storms in January, February, and March," he says. And the early winter? "We may have called for a couple of storms in November and December that didn't occur," says Geiger.
Hit or miss, there's a big and anxious audience for the almanacs' forecasts. The Old Farmer's Almanac distributed some 4.5 million copies of its 1995 edition; Farmers' Almanac expects to ship some 5 million this year. With consumers buying on their prognostications, even some Chrysler Corp. and General Motors Corp. dealers have started mentioning the forecasts in ads pitching Jeeps and Cadillacs with traction control.
Of course, many manufacturers attribute their blustery sales to factors other than the almanacs' predictions--which are based on sunspots and historic weather patterns. Bombardier Inc., manufacturer of Ski-Doo snowmobiles, figures its sales are way up because of pent-up demand left over from the recession and because "as baby boomers age, they're getting tired of cross-country skiing," says Anthony I. Kalhok, president of the Montreal company's consumer products group. And a lot of experts believe consumers are out buying shovels and plows this year mainly because stores ran short during last year's severe winter.
Still, whether the almanacs are right or wrong, consumers ignore them at their peril. Sam Giovanelli, a 63-year-old Island Park (N.Y.) retiree, went down to his local Sears to buy a snowblower back on Oct. 12. His first choice was sold out, but the store promised only a four-week wait on another model. Now, seven weeks later, he's still waiting. "They're saying it'll be in the end of this week or early next," he sighs. If he had only read an almanac, Giovanelli might have known enough to start his snowblower shopping around the middle of July. Let It Snow!
SALT The Salt Institute says $263 million worth of road salt was sold in the first six months of 1994, up 42% over last year.
SNOWMOBILES The International Snowmobile Industry Assn. says sales since Apr. 1 have risen 46% from the same period in 1993.
SNOWBLOWERS Toro's snowblower sales are up 120% over last year, to 250,000 units.
SNOWPLOWS Employment at snowplow maker Fisher Engineering has tripled in less than two years, to a total of 290 people.
Gary McWilliams in Boston