This winter is so far shaping up as another slim-on-snow saga. The Muskegon County Airport has measured less than 6 inches of snowfall so far this season. But that's practically a whiteout compared to this time last year, when only 1.8 inches had floated in.
Mark Kramer of High Maintenance Snowplowing in Grand Haven, who has been in the business nearly 20 years, said it's not the economy that's hurting his bottom line.
“With the lack of snowfall the last couple of years, we're struggling in this business to keep plows on the road,” he said. “We keep everything primed up and ready to go, hoping that we'll get some average snowfalls again.”
To compensate, Kramer said he and his family have cut back on expenses, including dinners out.
“You have to change your lifestyle a bit because you don't have the cash flow you normally depend on in the winter,” he said. “A lot of customers have been changing their accounts from annual fees to per-time fees, which definitely changes the cash flow for me.”
Whether there's snow or no, Kramer and other snowplow operators still have to buy salt and maintain their vehicles.
“I bought salt in November and it's still sitting in the bags,” Kramer said. “Snowplowing is my main business. Lawn mowing in the summer is secondary for me. It's been tough the last few years.”
Aaron Morton, owner of Grand Haven-based A&J Lawn Care and Snowplowing, said he hasn't plowed yet this year.
Morton purchased a second plow truck following more than 120 inches of snowfall in 2009. He sold it this year.
“The last couple of years have been horrible,” Morton said. “But I'm not complaining. It's been a nice transition to hang out with the family over the holidays as opposed to being up all night plowing.”
Bill Sanders of Bill's Sport Shop in Spring Lake said he has cut back on his snow blower inventory because of wimpy winters. Prior to 2009, he said his shop sold between 125 and 150 snow blowers in an average season.
“This year, we'll do maybe 50,” Sanders forecasts. “This is now the third year of erratic snow or not at all. This is following the exact pattern of last year. February of 2011 was the last of the big storms.”
Sanders cut orders in half for the 2011-12 season, then half again for the second half of the season.
“For a business that's based on winter, this is another footnote, another bad season," he said. "But what do you do? You can't force Mother Nature to be nice.”
Instead of servicing slews of snow blowers as in seasons past, Bill's Sport Shop actually had several motorcycles drive in for maintenance last month.
“That's highly unusual,” Sanders said. “They usually come in on trailers this time of year.”
After 50 years in business, the family-owned sport shop has withstood cyclical climates.
“Hopefully, we'll cycle back around and get a lot of snow,” Sanders said. “We've been doing this a long time. This is just a hiccup along the way.
"Hopefully, we'll have an early spring and go right into our lawnmower and motorcycle phase," he added.