Malls, Theaters Profit From Heat Wave : Some Merchants Turn Hot Days to Cold Cash

Times Staff Writer

A heat wave is an undeniable form of persuasion. Dieters decide it's OK to have just one dish of sherbet, penny pinchers flock to cool shopping malls and procrastinators suddenly realize that the air conditioner that has been on the fritz for months needs "emergency" repairs.

And all of these changes of heart naturally mean chunks of change in somebody else's pocket.

While the first hot spell of the summer may come as a shock even to veteran Southland residents, the purveyors of ice cream, cold beverages, suntan lotions, fans and other summertime essentials have been quite prepared.

That business is booming doesn't surprise Dennis Hoffman, general manager of Emanuel Distributing Co. in Los Angeles, which furnishes, among other things, Carnation, Haagen-Dazs and Dreyer's ice cream to stores, restaurants and amusement parks. "All gallonage and dozens (of specialty treats) are up, but that's consistent," said Hoffman, who added, pragmatically, that "every year we have the same heat wave. Another five to 10 degrees doesn't make much difference."

Promotions on Fans

Most stores, in fact, pride themselves on being prepared for the surge in business that a heat wave brings and share Hoffman's business-as-expected attitude. That the latest stretch of 100-plus degree temperatures coincides with a holiday week is even better for stores that traditionally lay in ample supplies for Fourth of July business.

Although most businesses are reluctant to reveal sales figures, many acknowledge the upward trend in heat-relief items.

Both Sav-On drugstores and Ralphs supermarkets have promotional sales of electric fans this week, with both reporting brisk sales. Half of five dozen sale fans were sold within a couple of days, one Sav-On clerk reported.

Major retailers, sensitive to the negative effect that empty shelves can have on shoppers, publicly insist that they are a rare phenomenon but privately admit an occasional gap in supplies of soda pop, ice cream and ice during such heat extremes.

Other promotion-wise businesses are quick to capitalize on their advantages to those who would be cool.

"It's a great opportunity for us to hang out gigantic signs that say 'Air Conditioned,' " said Sal Fasulo, vice president and general manager of Metropolitan Theatres, which operates 35 movie houses in Los Angeles.

Sales at Snack Bars Up

Although he says the summer releases are more of a lure than the cool air, Bill Hertz of Mann Theatres Corp. said, "This week there undoubtedly will be an upswing because of the tremendous heat wave." Hertz, whose company has 90 movie screens in the greater Los Angeles area, said matinee ticket sales increase in hot weather.

Better yet are sales at theater snack bars. Metropolitan's Fasulo said that "there's a psychological effect. People buy more drinks and sales increase 50% on this kind of day." And when moviegoers buy soft drinks on hot days, they go for the big ones: Fasulo said the 46-ounce size is a favorite with customers this week.

Shopping malls also are a popular destination in the race to get out of the heat. At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, "the parking structure out here is as bad as it is at Christmastime. The five levels are almost full," said William Carroll, director of customer relations at the mall. "Everyone seems to have bags in their hands. Even if they are coming in for the air conditioning, they are buying something."

In the San Fernando Valley, where temperatures often run several excruciating degrees higher than in breeze-cooled Orange County, the stores at the Sherman Oaks Galleria are profiting. Loretta Burch, assistant marketing director, said the mall has been "much more crowded" than usual.

"People will do anything to get out of the heat," she said with a laugh.

But oppressive hot spells often work against amusement parks, as parents reject the idea of superintending children cranky from standing in long lines or walking for hours under the unmerciful sun. Knott's Berry Farm said attendance is down about 5%. Disneyland, retaining its cheery outlook, said that attendance is normal but added that soft-drink sales in the park are up. Both parks declined to give specific attendance figures.

Strain on Some Firms

At Raging Waters, a water park in San Dimas that likes to call itself the "swimming suit version of Disneyland," attendance this past week has exceeded by 25% the park's optimistic projections, said Jim McMillan, marketing director. McMillan said more than 7,000 visitors each day splashed their way down, around and about the park's 13 water slides and rides.

The increased business puts a strain on many companies' operations, regardless of how well prepared they are.

Los Angeles-based Union Ice Co. can churn out 4,200 tons of ice daily at its plants scattered from Stockton to San Diego. But in a heat wave that's not always enough, said Bill Sayers, Union's executive vice president. During the really hot days, "sales probably go up about 30% above the normal figure," Sayers said, and then the company has to dig into its inventory.

Alvaro Liceaga, whose Frut-A-Mex company sells frozen fruit bars throughout Los Angeles, both in huge lots to retailers and singly through push-cart vendors, said he was pleased at the upturn in business. But his freezers were working so hard, he said, that the compressors gave out and, between making fruit bars and repairs, he wound up working until 4 a.m. Tuesday.

Appliances have been working overtime this past week. Electric companies in the Southland all cited heavy demand that peaked at 3 p.m. Tuesday but said demand was still below the 105-degree record set last Sept. 5.

In Orange County, about 6,000 customers were without electricity earlier this week as heavy demand caused transformers to overheat. Officials at Southern California Edison said heavy use of air conditioners contributed to the problem.

Weeklong Waiting Lists

Indeed, it might have seemed that every air conditioner in the Southland was turned on this week. But not so, say the suddenly popular air-conditioning companies, where swamped telephone operators report that customers will try almost anything to get a repairman.

"It's always an emergency or they know somebody in the company," said Julie Elmquist of Graham Bros. Air Conditioning & Heating in Costa Mesa. But by Monday, when most shops were reporting waiting lists of at least a week, such oft-used tactics went unheeded.

Universal Air Conditioning in Bell Gardens was doing such a brisk business that the company has shut down its installation department until the heat wave subsides so that installers can help out the 10 repairmen, said company President Elzie Dalton. Even with schedules booked for 12 to 14 hours a day, the company had to disappoint many of the 700 people who called in the last couple of days. Included were any with malfunctioning window units, which Universal does not repair.

As busy as Universal's phones were, however, one call did get through. It was a plea, Dalton said, from Felix Air Conditioning. "They said, 'Please don't refer people to us anymore. We're swamped.' "

Times staff writers Greg Johnson and Heidi Evans contributed to this story.

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