How much ice melt should jan/san distributors purchase pre-season?

“That is the question,” says Daniel Josephs, executive vice president and COO of Spruce Industries Inc. in Rahway, New Jersey. “You don’t want to order too little because then you don’t have enough. You don’t want to order too much so that it just sits in your warehouse. It’s very bulky, so it takes up a lot of inventory floor space.”

Like the weather, the ice melt business can be hard to predict.

Banner Systems in Brockton, Massachusetts has had seasons when it sold six tractor-trailer loads of ice melting products and other seasons when it sold less than 40 bags, says company President, John Channell.

“No matter how smart you think you are, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Channell.

Distributors use a variety of techniques to predict the severity of the impending winter season.   

While some turn to the Farmer’s Almanac (which so far indicates a less icy winter), others look at long-range forecasts or the amount of rainfall coming in during the summer.

“It’s still a guess,” Josephs says. “We do the best we can.”

Historically, ice melt has not had a high profit margin for distributors, so selling the weather-related item is something that Channell considers a value-added service for his customers.

“It’s a safety product more than anything,” he says. “One person slipping on your property and getting hurt can cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees.”

Nearing the end of June, Channell had placed an order for five tractor-trailers of ice melt. The temperature outside was 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Other than those in the ice melt business, do you think anybody else is thinking about ice melt right now?” he asks.

Most people don’t think about ice melt until they hear snow is in the forecast, he adds.

Reflecting On The Polar Vortex

Looking back on the polar vortex winter of 2013-14, jan/san distributors say they did the best they could to supply their customers with enough product.

“It was one of those times you wished you would have bet big and brought in a lot of ice melt, and you would have been able to make a lot more money,” says Josephs.

At the same time, customers who they had never heard of before, as well as prospects they had been chasing for years were calling and asking for ice melt, he adds.

KSS Enterprises in Kalamazoo, Michigan had a similar experience.

“We had some times when we were very thin on inventory, but purchasing did a great job of planning and the sales reps did a great job doing as many pre-orders as possible,” says Alex Brajak, a sales consultant at KSS Enterprises.

While KSS Enterprises did not run out of ice melt, the company reached a point when it could not take on new customers.

“Our main goal at that point was satisfying our (existing) customers,” Brajak says.

Spruce Industries allocated what it could to customers up until the end of March.

“I know our customers were quite impressed that we were at least able to give them something throughout the season,” Josephs says.

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Forecasting Ice Melt Pre-Orders After A Harsh Winter