Winter shutdowns had a brutal impact on some small businesses in Atlanta

Here’s just one example: payments using Square plummeted 70% during last month’s storm

Chart and photo courtesy Square

As this week’s icepocalypse loomed, the mayor, governor, and other officials were quick to tout teleworking as a way to thwart storm-induced gridlock. Plenty of businesses and government offices took that advice and this Tuesday, downtown streets and offices were deserted, compared to a few Tuesdays ago, when a million people tried to get on the Connector simultaneously. We all know how that turned out.

For hundreds of thousands of us, being able to telecommute is great; indeed it’s often better than commuting to work by more traditional means. For a writer and editor like me, there’s little difference between being at my desk in the office or the one at home. (Okay, let’s be honest; working at home on a snow day means being able to schlep around in an ancient sweater, fuzzy slippers, and yoga pants—which is pretty fantastic.) In fact, research shows that telecommuting can make people more productive and efficient.

But some tasks, obviously, cannot be shunted to the web. And when hundreds of businesses close, it means that hundreds of others feel the impact. When I’m working at home, I’m not venturing over to the Peachtree Center food court for one of those monster salads at GLC. When flights are cancelled, nobody shows up at Atlanta’s hotels, which means there’s no work for thousands of maids, busboys, doormen, cooks, bartenders, or concierges. When all of us are hunkered down at home, it means no one’s going out for drinks or dinner or a haircut or to a gallery opening. For hourly workers, small retailers, and people in the food and service industries, the shutdown of metro Atlanta—twice!—in a month means millions in lost revenue.

It will take weeks for the complete economic impact of the storms to be calculated, but here’s one fascinating measure of just how steep a hit some Atlanta businesses took last month, and surely experienced again this week.

Square, based in San Francisco and with offices in Atlanta, helps people accept payments using mobile devices. You know; those little, well, square gizmos attached to iPhones and iPads that allow you to swipe your credit card at the farmers market, a food truck, a boutique, or the salon. Square has more than 100,000 users in Atlanta, most of them small retailers or individuals. Those devices may be tiny, but they represent big bucks; since launching to the public in late 2010, Square has facilitated more than $600 million in payments in metro Atlanta alone, according to spokesperson Lindsay Wiese.

The firm analyzed its Atlanta payment data for January and noticed a remarkable drop in activity during last month’s storm. Square payment volume dropped by about 70 percent over the worst two days of last month’s storm.

On the chart above, payment volume for the worst two days of the January storm is represented by the blue line. More typical volume is tracked on the green line. As you see, payments plummeted as the snow started on Tuesday, January 28, and practically flat-lined on Wednesday, January 29, when temperatures remained below freezing and people were either still trapped in cars or watching the chaos on TV. While Square won’t release exact dollar figures, Wiese says that the chart represents “thousands of payments and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment volume for every day illustrated.”

One Square client is Shane Poda, owner of Grindhouse Killer Burgers in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. “It’s been a big blow,” he said of this week’s storm. The market, which is owned by the city, was closed Tuesday through Thursday. “It’s a loss of revenue and a hit to the paychecks of all the hourly employees,” said Poda. Almost as challenging has been the ripple effect caused by delayed and cancelled deliveries. As we spoke, Poda was fielding text messages from his cooks—they were running low on some ingredients—and scanning emails from his vendors; one produce supplier planned to make a Sunday delivery to help customers restock.

Curb Market closings in January—due to weather and the King holiday—meant a 25 percent reduction in business, said Poda. With the latest storm, this month’s numbers will take a tumble, too. “February was looking to being decent—until this storm happened,” he said.