What are people cutting out? So far, it's the big stuff and the small stuff
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: May 30, 2008 - People are eating out less, we know that. They're staying home more, saving money for that tank of gas and gallon of milk. That's the consumer side of the story.
But what about people who make their living off of consumer culture? Do real estate agents spend their days playing solitaire? Are waiters giving up their aprons for that acting career? Do travel agents shiver when they hear about stay-cations, the newest trend in travel where people stay home.
Depending on the industry, they all feel the effects differently. For now, people seem to be doing without the very big purchases of their lives -- and the very small. The stuff in between appears to be safe.
Homework is hard work
"The office is quiet. It's very quiet," said Aminah Aziz-Bass, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in north county. "People are making calls, but it's very quiet."
Aziz-Bass has been in the business for five years. Last year was a good year for her, she said. At this time last year, she had between 10-12 houses on the market.
With only two on the market now, "this year has been really slow," she said.
"If you come across a buyer that can get pre-approved, then everyone's excited." —Aminah Aziz-Bass
The same is true for Barbara Glassman, a realtor for Prudential Alliance in Chesterfield.
"I definitely have a lot more free time," said Glassman, who's been selling houses for 20 years with her husband, Jake.
In a good year, Glassman said they'd be doing between 30 to 36 closings during the first three months of the year. During the first three months of this year, they had one.
"That's unbelievable," Glassman said. "We're eating into our savings to live on."
Aziz-Bass is as well, she said, "hoping things will change before you run out."
And they're not alone.
According to the National Association of Realtors, the sale of existing homes continues to fall. In the Midwest, they sold at an annual rate of 1.10 million in April, which is 19.7 percent lower than April 2007. The median price was also down 2.9 percent to $159,000 from the year before.
Both Aziz-Bass and Glassman feel a little like hamsters running on a wheel.
"You can stay busy and not make any money," Aziz-Bass said.
"We work very hard," added Glassman, "and can't get anywhere."
Glassman and her husband are holding off on an annual vacation with their family, and Aziz-Bass is waiting for the market to change.
"I think that's the nature of this business though," she said. "So you just know, change is gonna come."
HEY, GOOD LOOKIN'
Hair stylists may be one of the last things people aren't yet willing to live without.
At Amarra Salon and Day Spa in O'Fallon, people still come in, said stylist Stephanie White, but they're finding small ways to make adjustments. Instead of getting their hair cut every four or six weeks, for instance, they're going eight to 12.
The salon has adjusted, too. "We took a few dollars off of our services."
But business is better than ever at Fantastic Sam's in Lake St. Louis -- and their prices went up to $13.95 for a haircut.
"We're actually busier than we were a year ago," said manager April Carver. "We're taking business from more of the higher class salons."
But Katy Beck, director of sales and marketing at one of those high end businesses, said they're doing fine at Ginger Bay Salon and Day Spa in Kirkwood.
"You gotta get your hair done."
Overall, she said, they're on trend with revenue from a year ago. Beck thinks that's because clients are loyal, and they view the service as maintenance, not a splurge.
There are also incentives, however, that most salons are offering to bring people in, including rewards programs and advertised specials. Restaurants and car dealers are doing the same.
So for now, anyway, people seem to want to save on major investments and little drains on their wallets and still look good.
"I think in this day and age that we live in," said Chad Elledge in guest services at Selah Salon and Day Spa in St. Louis, where business has increased, "more people are gonna pay to get their hair done if it's the last thing they pay for."
Change has come, in fact, on many car lots in St. Louis.
"People are just holding on to their cars for a lot longer," said Kyle Moore, a sales consultant with Suntrup Ford in Kirkwood.
And if they are buying, it's the smaller, fuel-efficient cars that are driving off the lots.
At Bommarito Honda in Hazelwood, sales manager Matt McManus sees the same thing.
"It's not hurting us as bad," he said. "The market as a whole is hurting the whole industry, but we're just in the right spot."
McManus, who has worked in the industry for nine years, can't compare sales with last year since the branch is new, but overall, he said, the sales of both new and used are on par with what he expected.
"We're definitely not feeling the crunch like some dealers are."
In fact, Edmunds.com, an automotive information Web site, reports the same trend, seeing more people buying smaller cars and SUVs. April new car sales were expected to be down 2.2 percent from the same time the year before.
At Suntrup Ford, "I'm holding my own," Moore said. But his brother worked in the industry and made really good money.
"I make enough to pay all my bills and then some," said Moore, who has been in the business for four years, "but not what I want to make."
HERE'S A TIP
Servers at some restaurants feel the same.
"Last year, I would say I made probably $100 a day," said Janey Hines, a waitress at Denny's in Overland about her tip money. "Some days, I'll make only $40. ... Even on a good day, it's not what it used to be."
Hines, who has worked as a waitress for two years, says business and tips are both down, and she's hearing from her customers that many aren't coming in as often because it's too expensive to drive there.
Still, the regulars do usually return.
"Most everyone orders our special."
Andrea Pavia bartends and waits tables at American Hero's Pub and Grill in Lake St. Louis. At her job, people have been laid off, and she's working between 40 and 60 hours a week.
"Before, when I worked three days a week, it was enough."
Pavia, who has worked in the restaurant industry for six years total, said the restaurant is trying new ways to bring people in, with dart leagues and poker tournaments. But it takes twice as much to make the same money, she said. And, prices have risen slightly to adjust.
"It's been really slow."
At Vin De Set in St. Louis, bartender and server Jeff Birkenmeier doesn't see extreme changes, though. "There's a slight, very slight decline," he said.
He's worked at the upscale restaurant for close to a year and thinks they've been less affected because their clientele have been less affected.
Unlike cars, vacations might be expensive, but they're not a major investment and they're not a daily drain.
"We're seeing somewhat of a slow decline," said Pat Blassie, president and owner of Altair International Travel in St. Louis. "But I wouldn't call it a dramatic slowdown."
In fact, she said, business is level with where it was last year.
"Now who's to say? Blassie said. "We're just a month into some really high gas prices."
Still, people are booking cruises and trips to Europe.
Amir Hotich, a travel agent with BiH Travel in St. Louis, said vacation packages to the Caribbean and Mexico are booked through June and July.
"So, people are traveling." —AmirHotich
In fact, a recent study from AAA and forecasting company Global Insight estimates that 25.1 million Americans will travel out of the country this year. That's a predicted rise of 2.6 percent from last year.
But still, people are making adjustments. BiH serves many going to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In years past, perhaps 10 or 20 family members would make the trip.
"Where now we have one or two."
Kristen Hare, a freelance writer, lives in Lake St. Louis.