- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the parking lot at the Salvation Army store on Little River Turnpike in Alexandria looks like the Beltway at rush hour. Bargain hunters have to compete for spots on the street.

Everything in the store is discounted 25 percent on Wednesdays, and manager Lonnie Hamilton says customers start lining up well before the 8 a.m. opening.

“People are always looking for a deal,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Sales of clothing and shoes are booming at the Salvation Army, but donations of used automobiles are way off. That’s good for auto-repair shops but bad for department stores and new car dealers.

The economy has been making more losers than winners lately. The winners have been quietly doing a steady business in such things as secondhand clothing and appliance repair.

“People are holding on to their money more, they would rather spend $175 on a repair rather than $500 on a new appliance and installation,” said Kirk Price, president of Home Appliance Repair of Vienna, Va.

“People are just hanging in there and trying to get as much out of their appliances as they can, in hopes that the economy will be more promising within the next year,” he said.

Mr. Price said the number of repair calls he gets has significantly increased, whereas sales and installation jobs are less frequent than they used to be.

Despite the downturn, a recent survey by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce revealed that 40 percent of businesses foresee an increase in trade during this year.

Chris Knudson, senior vice president of marketing and communication for the chamber, noted that 22 percent of the 80 businesses surveyed expect to expand their square footage and offer more services and products.

“In spite of all of the negativity [about the economy], I think this is a good opportunity for small firms as larger ones are trying to tighten their belts,” said Chad Moutray, chief economist of the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. “Many businesses are actually thriving during this time of economic recession.”

Thrift shops run by organizations like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army say they are seeing more shoppers throughout the Washington area. They are noticing more customers are purchasing items such as clothing and shoes but spending less on each purchase and steering clear of big-ticket items like furniture and automobiles.

Sales at the Salvation Army’s Northern Virginia stores have increased 8 percent over the past year, according to Mike Vincent, administrator for the charity’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Alexandria. But automobile donations to the Salvation Army are $170,000 behind last year’s pace because people are holding on to what they have, he said.

Goodwill, meanwhile, is working to keep donations coming in.

“Goodwill’s primary focus is maintaining high donations,” said Brendan Hurley, senior vice president of Goodwill of the Greater Washington area. “The more proactive we can be in soliciting donations, the more likely we are to keep the inventory satisfying to customers.”

Other businesses that can save shoppers money are thriving in this recession environment.

The constant buzz of machinery used to save old shoes reverberates through Expert Shoe & Luggage Repair in Chevy Chase. The shop can refurbish shoes for a fraction of the price of a new pair. It repairs leather and fixes zippers, too. The owner of the Northampton Street shop says business is good because of the economy.

“Although most of my customers are still people who buy expensive shoes and have them repaired often, I am getting more customers with just ‘OK’ shoes who are looking to get as much wear out of them before having to purchase new shoes,” owner Joe Apkarian said.

Auto and appliance repair shops are also thriving as consumers make do with what they have. Although the conservation of expensive items is beneficial for repair shops, it kills profits for auto and appliance retailers.

“I work on Volkswagens and older vehicles, so my business is pretty consistent,” said Don Kowalski, owner of Paul’s Auto Repair in Annandale. “The revenue I’ve generated really hasn’t changed that much. It looks like it will be the same as it was last year.”

Generally, Mr. Kowalski’s two-bay garage is booked up to a month in advance by a constant stream of thrifty VW owners who need a little help keeping their old cars on the road. The work is so steady he can afford to take long weekends during the summer to unwind at his beach house on the New Jersey shore.

At Norris‘ Garage in Oxon Hill, business has been about the same as it was a year ago, said owner Joseph Norris, who has cut his prices slightly to stay competitive.

“People are spending less money and still expect quality work to be done on their car,” Mr. Norris said.

People are taking care of their bodies, too. Demand for health care traditionally does not decline in a downturn, and consumers still want to stay in shape and feel good about themselves. Yoga is booming.

Studio Serenity Yoga and Down Dog Yoga are adding more locations, with a second in the works for Studio Serenity and a fourth for Down Dog.

Washington’s Studio Serenity Yoga has watched its attendance rates increase and is expanding its services beyond yoga to dance, acrobatics and trapeze. It also added a birthing center where expectant mothers can have their babies delivered in a natural setting.

“We pride ourselves on being affordable, and anticipate business to remain constant as it does year to year,” said Katja Brandis, owner of Studio Serenity.

Down Dog Yoga has locations in Georgetown, Bethesda and Herndon, and plans to add a fourth gym in the District. Each studio can hold at least 60 people, and classes sell out on a regular basis, said owner Patty Ivey.

“We have always had really steady business,” she said. “I think we are going to do more than we are doing now. We have a strong business model and have experienced great financial success.”

Pharmacies also tend to hold up better than other businesses in a recession.

Grubb’s CARE Pharmacy on East Capitol Street NE has seen its business increase since it completed a renovation in September, said owner Michael Kim.

Mr. Kim said there is a growing demand for affordable generic drugs and that American pharmacies are working to meet that need to keep business here instead of places like Canada where drugs tend to be less expensive.

Area grocers are also seeing increased demand for generic products and in-store brands.

Magruder’s Grocery Store, a Rockville chain with eight stores in the Washington area, has seen a 3 percent increase in business over the past six months and reports higher demand for generic groceries.

“People are trying to save money, and generic brands just happen to be cheaper than the national brand,” said Marc Polsky, senior vice president of Magruder’s.

Grosvenor Market in Rockville saw a 6 percent increase in business over the past year even though more people are buying cheaper, store-brand groceries, spokesman Scot Shuck said.

“Regardless of the economy, people still need to eat,” Mr. Shuck said.

• Barbara Salisbury contributed to this report.

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