Polar vortex means skeletal staffs for retailers that remain open

January 31, 2019

Traffic was a non-issue and there were plenty of parking spots at the few stores that were open Wednesday.

The city’s three main shopping malls were largely closed along with most other small businesses in the Madison area, giving most of Wednesday the feel of a Sunday morning. Only it was the polar vortex dictating the region’s retail scene not church or the ability to sleep in.

Many retailers were expected to have limited hours again on Thursday, as temperatures begin to head back up. The closures have brought commerce in the area to a crawl.

On Monday it was a snowstorm that limited travel, but on Wednesday temperatures plunged to minus 25 forcing many to close their doors for the safety of their employees and knowing that, even if they did open, sales would have likely been limited despite the fact that thousands of potential customers were off from school and work.

At West Towne Mall, the interior mall was shuttered with only Dick’s Sporting Goods, Total Wine & More, Dave & Busters and J.C. Penney — businesses with exterior entrances — staying open. Barnes & Noble was closed but Shopko, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Metcalfe’s Market were open.

The J.C. Penney store was operating with a skeleton staff. The store, with 160 employees, has 60 to 70 people working on a typical weekday but only about 30 people came in on Wednesday. A truck with merchandise that had been scheduled to arrive at 4 a.m. was pushed back to 8 a.m. to help employees avoid the most extreme lows of the early morning, said Scott Young, the store’s manager.

Only a handful of customers were in the store around noon when the temperature was minus 11.

“We knew a lot of the other big box stores would be open, so we wanted to be here for our customers,” Young said. “This is slower than I thought it would be.”

Grocery stores remained open Wednesday, but some chose to close early and will again have reduced hours on Thursday. At Woodman’s Market on the West Side, crowds were scarce Wednesday night and carts were not allowed in the parking lot as customers were asked to either carry their grocery bags or use the drive up service. Metcalfe’s Market was scheduled to close its two locations in Madison at 7 p.m. Wednesday and canceled its grocery delivery service for the day but was scheduled to reopen at 6 a.m. Thursday. For Willy Street Co-op, its store on the North Side of the city was closed Wednesday while the stores on Williamson Street and in Middleton were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. The Middleton store also closed its juice bar and deli but all three stores are scheduled to open at 10 a.m. Thursday.

In downtown Middleton, most businesses were closed on Wednesday, including the Barriques coffee shop, which was scheduled to reopen Thursday morning, and the Village Green Bar & Grill, home to Ron’s spicy chili.

At Hilldale Shopping Center in Madison, Metcalfe’s Market, Target and Macy’s remained open Wednesday but the vast majority of businesses were dark, including the mall’s two largest restaurants, Great Dane Brew Pub and Cafe Hollander. However, most of the stores at the mall will not be open Thursday due to a water main break. Most stores won’t reopen until noon on Friday, according to the shopping center’s website.

The break appeared to be at Motherhood Maternity where water could be seen bubbling out of the building near the front door and flowing across the sidewalk and into a nearby storm sewer.

On Wednesday afternoon, prior to the break, Morgan’s Shoes was the lone small retailer to remain open in the shopping center.

Irv Hirschfeld, co-owner of the store that opened in 1962 and is the mall’s last original tenant, said it was important for the store to remain open as it has become an expectation for his customers. He had one customer drive from Tomah on Wednesday to purchase $500 shoes specially made for a foot condition. The store opened at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

“It’s a very skeleton crew. We pretty much have the minimum to run the store,” said Hirschfeld, who admitted business was slow. “You always want to balance the business aspect and the safety aspect and the needs of our customers.”

At the nearby Ace Hardware store, 414 N. Midvale Blvd., business was steady. Most customers were buying weather-related items. They included wrapping for pipes, fuel and oil additives, ice melt, portable heaters, firewood and even paint, as some customers used the day off to paint interior rooms, said Nicholas Sogn, the store’s manager. The store did not reduce its hours of operations on Wednesday and was likely going to maintain regular hours on Thursday.

“People come here to get their emergency goods to make sure they make it through the night,” Sogn said. “We need to be open.”