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In a weak economy, more drawn to resole than retail

Consumers flood repair shops with items they want to make last. Even golfers want to save some green.

June 29, 2008|Matt Assad and Chris Reber | Allentown Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, PA. — Ever taken that used tea bag and dunked it into a second cup of hot water? As the economy sags, the idea of making good with what you've got has folks squeezing more use out of their cars, shoes and even golf clubs.

While retail stores report drooping sales, repair shops are flooded with people looking to extend the life of their old stuff because they're too worried to buy new.

Sure, the housing market is in free fall, gas exceeds $4 a gallon and the likes of Ford and Sears are complaining about declining sales.

But at Rick Tilton's shoe repair shop in Palmer Township, Pa., so many people are getting shoes resoled or new zippers on their coats or straps on their purses that Tilton barely has time to sleep.

"Most days, I'm starting at 7 a.m. and staying after closing until 10 or 11 p.m. just to keep up," Tilton said, noting he has little time to be interviewed because the line in his shop is growing. "In the 27 years I've been doing this, I've learned that when the economy goes down, I go up."

At Valley Appliance in Allentown, the main clientele is landlords. But in the last year, technician Darin Paller said more people are bringing in relatively disposable goods for repair.

"They'll try and fix 'em before they throw 'em," Paller said. "Even those tabletop microwaves that are like $70."

Bethlehem economist Kamran Afshar said it makes perfect sense. When people lose confidence in the economy, they forgo buying new items and hold on to their old stuff.

"It's not isolated to the guy who got the pink slip, because if his neighbor is struggling, he sees it and loses confidence too," Afshar said. "What we are seeing is a classic response that happens during every slow economy."

That's why Tom Reitenauer, who has owned Stefko Mower Sales & Service in Bethlehem, Pa., for 40 years, has had to turn repair business away.

"I've got a three- to four-week backlog, and people don't like to wait, so I have to turn them away," Reitenauer said. "What they don't realize is that every repair shop is backed up. They're going to wait anywhere they go."

Still, because Reitenauer also sells mowers, he's seeing both the upside and the downside of this economy. While his repair business is up 25%, his new mower sales are down 65%, he said.

With the struggling economy, and competition from the likes of Lowe's and Home Depot, he's getting out of the new sales business.

Mike DeCrosta, service manager for Strauss Auto in Bethlehem, said a double dose of slow economy and high fuel costs has driven up his customer count. More people are avoiding a big new-car payment by repairing older cars. But DeCrosta says there's more to it than that.

"We're also getting a lot more people doing things to boost their gas mileage," he said. "They're getting new tires, alignments, fuel system cleaners and a lot of tuneups. I've never seen us sell so many over-the-counter air filters."

Even golfers are penny-pinching, and Jerry Hintze is taking full advantage. Owner of the Clubmaker in Bethlehem, Hintze specializes in building golf clubs and selling them at a lower price than the big-name golf outlets.

Now, the guy who used to buy a $400 Callaway driver is getting his club made by Hintze. The thriftiness has even surprised Hintze, who's been making clubs for 21 years.

"I can't believe how many people are bringing in their old clubs and asking me to put new heads on them," Hintze said. "I rarely saw that before. Now, it's happening every day."

So keep dunking that tea bag, resoling those shoes and tuning up that clunker. Most economists expect the slowdown to stretch into next year.

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