I found myself in possession of a few extra dollars the other day. Overcome with glee, I ran right out to put my minimal money back into the local economy! I was certainly not on a quest for retail therapy: I visited the vitamin store to replenish some supplements, stopped in the drugstore for supplies, and popped into the beauty supply shop to replace depleted shampoo.
My foray back into stores after a long, involuntary hiatus was very disturbing. The parking spaces were unfilled and the store aisles vacant, and in each establishment my very presence was immediately greeted with gratitude. Like the first guest to show up at a dinner party given by an extremely nervous host, I felt unease radiating through the hearty and too-loud welcome that met me as I came through each store's front doors.
Clerks chatted with each other while I shopped at one store, uneasy with how low the sales figures for the week had dropped. One was certain she'd be let go after having her hours cut back, but another figured the ax would fall her way as she earned almost one dollar more per hour. In a retail shop, I asked if I could get an advertised "web only special". The manager replied: "No problem -- I'd be nuts to turn away any sale." At another store, the solitary staff person apologized for her "dusty" appearance, as she had been cleaning the shelves all day "just to keep busy."
Was it any coincidence that, while driving to the first store, I heard a news report that my county was now leading New York State in foreclosures? I'm positive that the absence of people in local stores on a bright, sunny October afternoon was not a fluke; there was a definite correlation between the stores being deficient in customers and the surge of homeowners being delinquent on their mortgage payments.
I made conversation each time I checked out my purchases, hearing tales of woe and apprehension about individual jobs and, in one case, doubts about the ability of the store to survive much longer in this economic climate. The retail disquiet was quite similar to the despondency expressed almost daily by callers to my law office who are three, four, five or more months behind in paying their mortgages. No sales clerk expressed any unwillingness to accommodate customers; there were just no shoppers to be found. The same with the delinquent mortgage borrowers seeking my counsel: They are not unwilling to work matters out with their lenders; they just don't earn enough (or have any other resources) to dig themselves out of their financial holes.
Without a line of impatient store patrons to speed her along, one store employee was eager to chitchat. She related how the big department store that anchored her shopping center was almost always empty. On her lunch hour, she would go from rack to rack of clothes, amazed at the bargains. "Did you get any great deals?" I idly asked. "Nope. I don't get paid enough nowadays to afford any new clothes."
That sums up fairly eloquently why swelling foreclosure figures dovetail into the absence of retail shoppers. When you lose your house to foreclosure, your closets go, too.
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