Economic worries take toll on local businesses

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Sam Erb, the owner of Westside Bowery, said he is beginning to feel the pinch of an uncertain economy as his food costs rise.

AIKEN --- Pamela Hawkins doesn't always buy the brands of food she used to.

Instead of name-brand peanut butter, the Graniteville grandmother is picking a cheaper brand to save money.

With the way the economy looks, she said, she has to.

"I know things are really getting high, like milk and bread," she said recently after loading her cart a the Aiken Wal-Mart Supercenter on Richland Avenue. "I've tried to cut back some. I don't see how they can keep going up with these prices."

Across the nation, nervous shoppers say they're cutting back amid a sluggish economy.

Consumers are bypassing their normal stores for discount retailers, eating out less and putting off upgrades to cars or electronics.

If they're saving money, that means retailers, restaurant owners and other business owners aren't making as much.

Local business owners say they've already noticed a downturn in business, but are staying optimistic that the economy will rebound.

The economic forecasts coming from national experts aren't painting a rosy picture, however, and the monthly report from the research division at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business is predicting a slowdown for "economic activity" in the state. Its report shows the South Carolina Index of Leading Economic Indicators hitting a new low in January after dipping for the sixth consecutive month.

That indicator tips off economy watchers about what to expect, and it shows that the job market isn't expanding. Coupled with higher prices for necessities such as gasoline and food, that makes consumers nervous about spending, especially on big-ticket items.

Bud Lawrence, a co-owner of Bobby Jones Ford in Augusta, said he's already noticed that sales of new automobiles are flat this year, and he's predicting at least a hundred fewer sales than in 2007.

"People are tight," he said. "They're nervous."

Nationally, he said, industry watchers' estimates of new car sales keep getting worse -- now fewer than 15 million new sales this year.

He's hoping for 1,500 sales of new, used, fleet and industrial vehicle sales, about a hundred fewer than last year. March's final tally will be a good indicator for the rest of the year, he said, but "in our case, compared to March of last year, our business is going to be slightly down."

It's not just expensive new automobiles that consumers are bypassing, though. It's the simple things such as eating out that might get cut from their budgets.

Sam Erb, the owner of Westside Bowery in downtown Aiken, said he's already seeing the cost of food impact his business, and he and other restaurant owners have already been warned by suppliers that prices are only going to go up more -- anywhere between 8 and 32 percent.

"And they do not see it ever going down," Mr. Erb said. "There's going to be restaurants close ... it's scary."

He's nervous, and that's before he even starts talking about how consumers are cutting back on splurges -- like eating out.

"January was probably one of our worst months ever," he said.

Valentine's Day helped pick up February, he said, and spring time is usually good for business.

But he predicts that as consumers are hit with higher costs elsewhere, they'll cut back.

"The uncertainty to the public has never been this bad," he said.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

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