Shoppers not ready to power economy

BARGAINS GALORE, FEW TAKERS

February 09, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Correspondent

FREDERICK -- The Redskins T-shirts have been marked down from $12 to $7.99. Women's Reebok aerobics shoes are on sale for $29.99. Lots of bargains. Lots of saleswomen. And on this damp and gray Friday morning in Western Maryland, not a soul in the "Simply for Sports" department, just past lingerie and just beside lamps, where President Bush bought some tennis socks last Christmas.

Down the escalator in hosiery, Ardell Droneburg of Gashouse Pike is buying some socks, too. Five pairs of pastel-colored anklets. Not because George Bush bought socks here, mind you.

"I bought them because I needed them. These days, I'm just buying things I really need," insists Mrs. Droneburg, who worries that her husband's milk-hauling business could slow down any day. "I have to be very cautious about spending because you never know. We have to save for a rainy day."

For Christmas, she gave her seven grandchildren one toy each and the rest clothing. It used to be the other way around -- less clothes, less practical stuff, more toys.

It also used to be more crowded at this J. C. Penney store in Frederick Towne Mall -- pre-recession.

"I've noticed the store is pretty bare," says Delia Coulby of Emmitsburg, who is "just window-shopping" at the jewelry counter. "Usually you can't find somebody to help you. Now you can."

If the economy is starting to turn around, as Mr. Bush says, it's news to most of the shoppers here, middle-income residents of Frederick County, who earn their wages -- an average $38,000 per household -- in manufacturing, biotech, construction and service industries.

Although unemployment here is slightly lower than the state average (and a full point lower than the national average), and the housing market is beginning to pick up, the economic picture remains flat with consumer spending extremely modest.

Shoppers at this department store tend to browse, return items, hunt for steals among "25% off" signs -- ubiquitous as the drone of the Muzak -- but mostly hold on to their pocketbooks.

Dare Baker, a nurse who lives in Wolfsville, comes here every week -- she brings her grandmother to get her hair done -- and each time checks the price tag of a $70 silk robe she'd like to buy for her husband. Today it's down to $49.99, but even that seems extravagant these days -- especially since it's "Dry Clean Only." "This really is not practical," she tells herself.

The president's yuletide visit to the department store left her thoroughly unimpressed.

"I didn't rush over here to see him," says the Republican. "I feel all of them are full of hot air. Promises, promises -- and nothing ever comes out of it!"

Confidence in the nation's state of affairs, in fact, seems to be in shorter supply than customers.

"I'm kind of scared to buy anything," says Vicky Tucker, returning a pair of shoes with her husband, Jason.

Five months ago, Mr. Tucker was laid off from his seven-year job as a lineman at C. W. Wright Construction but counts himself RTC among the lucky since he landed a job as a cook at a seafood restaurant. His wife, a medical secretary, hasn't been able to find work in her field for two years. During warmer seasons, she sells flowers and produce at a nearby nursery.

"We just had our taxes done, and this year we'll be getting back the most we've ever gotten back," says the New Windsor husband and father of a 5-year-old son. "But I'm afraid to spend any of it. I started out seven years ago making $7.50 an hour and worked myself up to the point where I was making good money. Then bam! -- the ladder was down on the ground, and I'm back making what I was making when I started."

Hard-luck stories seem to be lurking by every clearance rack. Upstairs in the children's department, Carolyn Kefauver keeps watch over her three young children while her mother looks for birthday presents for two of them.

"The government says we're out of the recession, but I don't think so," says grandmother Janet Wisner of Jefferson.

"We're not anywhere near out of it," says her daughter. "My son's birthday is in two weeks. It's really sad. He'll get maybe one little gift. No big party. It's really hard for us right now."

The young housewife, whose husband has a new construction business, just canceled an appointment to have her children's picture taken at Montgomery Ward's at the other end of the mall. "I didn't have $3 for the sitting fee," she says.

But on the other side of a display of toddler dresses, Emilline Zimmerman of Frederick is shopping for her grandchildren with obvious glee. She and her husband, both retired government workers on a fixed income, have more disposable income now than they've ever had and feel secure. "We know what we're going to get," she says of their regular retirement checks. "We haven't really minded [the recession] that much."

Neither has David Simmons, a Frederick computer technician who has held onto his job through the economic hard times -- if not his wife.

"My wife just left me so I'm out here shopping for a single life," he says, thumbing through a stack of Levi's Dockers slacks. "I'm going to need a new wardrobe, a new look -- the '90s look."

Just yards away at the fine jewelry counter, Roger Nusbaum is racking up a tall bill, too. But his idea of "the '90s look" is a gold and ruby bracelet for his wife of 40 years this month.

"Is it all right to put it on a credit card?" the retired Frederick auto mechanic asks. "I don't have the cash. I live from check to check."

But 40th anniversaries are worth at least a small splurge.

"It's a long time," he says, leaving the store with his small J. C. Penney bag. "We'll work this in."

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