Recession erodes conveniences shoppers got accustomed to

Monday, April 6, 2009

CHICAGO -- First came the housing bust, followed by eroding job security and dwindling retirement accounts.

Now, the worst downturn in decades is nibbling away at something so entrenched that people took it for granted: simple, everyday convenience.

It can be as little as driving a few extra miles to buy sheets at Bed Bath & Beyond instead of the now-defunct Linens 'N Things. It's the grumbling that comes with the trash being picked up once a week instead of twice. Or finding there's a long wait to use a computer at the public library.

The changes businesses are making -- like the law office in Chicago that stopped providing employees with free coffee -- are usually aimed at staving off more drastic initiatives like layoffs and wage cuts.

In the most dramatic instances, experts said, small changes can help businesses keep their doors open as consumer spending falls and unemployment grows.

"If having a business open an extra hour is more of a cost than a benefit, it's a pretty easy decision to cut back on hours," said Virginia Commonwealth University marketing professor David Urban. "In the big scheme of things, consumers are already cutting back dramatically on dining, travel, and other non-necessary expenditures, to stay afloat financially. So in a sense, they are doing the same things in their personal lives that retailers are doing in their business lives."

The 55 malls in the U.S. owned by Westfield Group -- many in California, but also in 11 other states -- started curtailing their hours on March 1. Most will open half an hour later and close half an hour earlier during the week. Some will close an hour earlier on Sundays.

"Naturally retailers and landlords alike hope this would be temporary," said said Westfield Group spokeswoman Katy Dickey.

Beyond shorter hours, budget cuts mean planning carefully what days to cook fish and could mean waiting longer for subways and buses.

Trash collection in Dallas is being cut in half, while the city boosts recycling pickups -- a move that's projected to save city coffers up to $4 million a year.

And some public transit agencies are debating whether to cut routes and hike fares.

For her part, Frecon worries that more niche businesses will curtail hours and merchandise or shut their doors altogether, forcing people who depend on their products to make more changes as well.

"They're going to be closing up because they can't afford to be keeping their doors open, and then we're going to have to resort to using Wal-Marts and Targets, which don't have the specialty service and the specialty products you need," she said. "A lot of corner cutting is going to start to happen because you're not going to be able to find the specialty things you need."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: