Shoppers Seek More for Their Money


Stephanie McClean gets her manicures and pedicures just once a month these days, instead of once every two weeks.

Hinkamp Jewelers has begun stocking more silver and less gold and has introduced more pieces in the $200 to $500 range, instead of $1,200 to $1,500.

Lillian Green, looking to pinch a few more pennies after she retired, has started shopping at Aldi.

Although the changes aren't seismic, people throughout Fayetteville have altered the way they spend money because of the recession -- the biggest and longest economic downturn since the 1930s.

The recession has ended, but shop owners say their customers are more savvy nowadays. They're more cautious about buying, and they're looking for the money they do spend to go further.

Think more Dollar Menu, less Extra Value Meal.

Less Kraft macaroni and cheese, more store brand.

To be sure, folks are still spending in Fayetteville. The city has been buffered from much of the economic downturn because of Fort Bragg, economists say.

Per capita incomes in Cumberland County have risen 60 percent since 2001, faster than in any other urban county in the country except Onslow, the home of Camp Lejeune.

Figures released this summer show that the Fayetteville metro area had a per-person income of nearly $41,000 -- higher than any other large city in the state except, again, Jacksonville.

That income growth is reflected in taxable sales in Cumberland County. According to sales tax figures from the North Carolina Department of Revenue, consumer spending in the county has risen 12 percent in the past four years. It has gone the other way statewide, dropping by almost the same amount, the figures show.

But recessions can affect psychology, as well as finances, no matter where you live, said Michael Walden, a consumer economist at North Carolina State University.

Thrift stores in Fayetteville have reported an uptick in traffic, a result, Walden said, of a change in social feelings toward bargain shopping.

"People are looking for more value for their dollar," Walden said.

Even with both heads of a household gainfully employed, he said, families can look at their diminished home values and slumping investments and decide to cut spending.

The recession evaporated more than $15 trillion in household wealth across the country. Americans are acutely aware of their drop in net worth, and the assets they lost are only just starting to return, Walden said.

"Consumers are shopping more for generic brands rather than name brands," he said. "They're trying to move down the quality level, shopping at stores that cater to lower incomes."

In Fayetteville, that has taken form in many, sometimes subtle, ways.

In 21 years of business, Judy Robinson has never had more people wanting to consign clothing at Sacks Consigned Designs on Raeford Road.

On Nov. 11, the last day she accepted consigned clothes for the fall and winter, Robinson was swamped.

"They're realizing they could make a little money that way," she said.

Robinson said she is getting new customers, too. Folks who used to shop at Macy's, J.C. Penney and Belk are now coming to her shop, willing to sacrifice a new outfit for a style that is a couple of years older.

Take, for example, a black-and-white sweater by French designer Liore. It cost $129 at a clothing boutique. On consignment, it's $46.98.

Robinson said formal dresses have been among the biggest sellers. Beauty pageant gowns, mother-of-the-bride dresses and high school prom dresses are also popular.

"The dress that's worn only once, they're realizing, 'Why pay full price?' " Robinson said.

The recession has not directly affected Shirley Salters, who works at Fort Bragg. But she said she has felt the need to pull back on spending, nonetheless.

She said her family eats at home more, at restaurants less.

On a recent Saturday, she was at Sacks looking for a dress for her daughter's high school orchestra performances.

Goodwill has had a similar experience as Sacks, said Steve Snyderman, a spokesman for Goodwill of Eastern North Carolina. Shoppers who would have gone exclusively to department stores are now taking detours to Goodwill, hoping to save a little money, he said.

But spending on apparel remains healthy in Fayetteville, according to sales tax numbers. Apparel sales dipped slightly during the recession but rebounded dramatically last year, increasing by more than a third in four years.

Even as shoppers start to spend more on clothing, they are looking for better bargains, said Bill Roberts, a regional chairman for Belk.

The recession has forced designers to offer more for less, Roberts said. Major clothing makers such as Polo and Nautica have flourished by lowering their prices on key items. Customers are now less willing to fork over more money simply because of a label, he said.

That also seems true when it comes to buying food, said Dave Throckmorton, who oversees the North Carolina stores for the discount grocery chain Aldi.

"They're really getting back to basics with their food budgets," Throckmorton said. "In addition to that, people feel freer to loosen the grip on their ties to national brands. They know that name brands significantly increase the prices."

Shoppers at other stores in Fayetteville said they've been patterning their grocery lists around weekly sales, instead of sticking to their normal buying habits.

Rick Johnson of Parkton stopped at the Food Lion on Eastern Boulevard on a recent Thursday to pick up Pepsi on his way home because it was on sale.

Since the recession, Johnson said, he has cut back on meat -- buying it only when it's on sale.

"We used to eat steaks once a week," he said. "Now I'm lucky if I get them once a month."

At McDonald's, customers have latched onto the fast-food chain's new coffee and smoothies, which are $1 to $1.50 less than at most coffee shops.

McDonald's customers still are looking for the kinds of drinks they would normally order at a Starbucks, but they're less willing to pay Starbucks' prices, said Lisa Powell, who owns and operates several local McDonald's.

Despite the increase in penny-wise consumers, spending on food increased 8.5 percent in Cumberland County since 2006.

Unlike food and clothing, alcohol has not been subject to scrimping. Like other areas of the local economy, Soldiers on Fort Bragg have helped keep alcohol sales strong, even during the recession, said Gene Webb, director of the Cumberland County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Top-shelf liquors such as Crown Royal whiskey and Grey Goose vodka have not waned in popularity, he said.

One segment of the economy that has seen a sales slowdown is lumber and building supplies -- which have slumped by more than a quarter since 2006 -- and furniture, which has dropped more than 8 percent.

Ashley Thompson, manager of New and Nearly New Thrift Store on Bragg Boulevard, said she's seen a noticeable uptick in sales as a result of the recession, but not a dramatic change.

"There is definitely a percentage of the population that is looking for an alternative to buying something new," she said. "But I don't think there's been a huge change in Fayetteville."

The store, which sells used and discounted new furniture and home furnishings, has seen a stream of new faces who might be less inclined to spend several thousand dollars on a new living room set, Thompson said.

Other new shoppers are looking to take advantage of the store's layaway program now that financing is harder to get, she said.

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