Fort Mill Times

ALMIGHTY DOLLAR STORES: Making ends meet

Robyn Humphries, assistant manager at the Family Dollar in Fort Mill, rings up purchases by Sandra Coulbourn. More people are turning to the discount stores - there are three in the township - to stretch their budgets in a tight economy.
Robyn Humphries, assistant manager at the Family Dollar in Fort Mill, rings up purchases by Sandra Coulbourn. More people are turning to the discount stores - there are three in the township - to stretch their budgets in a tight economy.

With gas and food prices continuing to skyrocket and the economy in a possible recession, Sandra Coulbourn is always on the hunt for great deals.

Recently, she's found several bottles of cleaning supplies for a reasonable price at the Family Dollar, just off Doby's Bridge Road in the Fort Mill Town Square.

Like many consumers, Coulbourn considers dollar stores the last bastion for good products at affordable prices; places where she can really get the most out of her money. Currently moving into a new home in Fort Mill, Coulbourn says her purse has been stretched to the limit recently because of moving costs.

To ease the financial pain, she regularly shops at the Family Dollar for everything from cleaning supplies to hardware items.

"This store has better prices. I shop here because it's cheap, close and convenient and they have most of the things I need," Coulbourn says. "I've always been a penny-pincher, and it's always been an issue for me of dollars and cents, even more so now than ever."

Shari Burnier decided to try shopping at a dollar store for the first time last week, choosing the Dollar General store in Avery Plaza off of Hwy. 160 East. She was fascinated with the amount of items a friend had purchased at the store, and decided to make some dollar purchases of her own. During one shopping trip last week, she had her cart loaded with paper goods and bathroom supplies, all costing a fraction of the price she spends at other stores.

"We were so excited about our first trip to the dollar store!" Burnier says. "I figured why pay more money somewhere else when I can come here?"

Robert Stonebraker, associate professor of economics at Winthrop University, says it is not unusual for consumers like Coulbourn and Burnier to change their spending habits during a recession. And although data for specific retail trends are not often collected, he has read recent studies that show a significant increase in consumers purchasing store brands versus national brands, which tend to be similar items at a cheaper price.

He's not surprised then to see some consumers gravitate towards places like dollar stores that can offer inexpensive goods.

"Typically, there are trends among retailers during recessions. The Wal-Mart's of the world do better while the South Park Malls of the world do worse," Stonebraker says. "It's the same in recession to recession, from community to community."

During a spending slowdown, consumers may decide to downgrade their needs, explains David Crockett, an associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. He's noticed that people tend to conserve their money and cut down on things like entertainment and vacations in favor of everyday needs, particularly groceries.

"Generally, what people do during these times is forgo luxuries and focus their spending on the basics," Crockett says. "This might imply that consumers who weren't open to shopping at the dollar store will start shopping there during an economic downturn."

This doesn't mean all consumers will react the same way, though, Crockett says. Through his studies on consumer behavior, he's noticed several reactions to a bad economy, from people switching stores to just simply buying less. One study he read even noticed that during an economic downturn certain types of items actually get thrown away more. This phenomena occurs when people experiment with cheaper kinds of food, such as meat, but their families don't enjoy it and it is eventually thrown away. He says this example just goes to show how dollar stores may not be the only way consumers cope with a poor economy.

Stonebraker agrees, noting that recessions affect different people in different ways, depending on their individual circumstances. He says that while people with limited incomes or who have lost jobs may turn to places like dollar stores, those with steady jobs may keep their spending habits exactly the same.

And although it's not clear whether the economy has significantly influenced consumers to shift their spending towards dollar stores, several of the chains have reported a marked increase in sales this year.

Josh Braverman, a spokesperson for Family Dollar stores, says the company has seen higher sales numbers over the last two months throughout the chain's 6,500 nationwide stores. In fact, sales were up by 4 percent in April and 2 percent in May.

"There has definitely been some upward mobility that we're seeing and we attribute it to people knowing where to get good quality products," Braverman says. "But there's no proof that it's because of the economy and that people are trading down."

Tawn Earnest, senior director of corporate communications for Dollar General stores, has noticed a similar sales increase for her company. According to the chain's 2008 first quarter report, sales have increased by 5.4 percent from the same time last year. She says that while the earnings have showed an upward trend, "it's a little hard to put our arms around as to the exact reasons."

For several people, though, their trip to a dollar store is not dependent on the economy. Robin Epps, a Fort Mill resident who works at a hospice in Rock Hill, has regularly shopped at the Dollar General.

"I always buy my scrubs at Dollar General. At any other store it can cost at least $15 for the shirt and another $15 for the pants, but here it's $6 for the whole outfit," Epps says. "It's not so much the economy, I always enjoyed these stores."

Lynn Koele agrees. A shopper who lives in Indian Land, she regularly shops at dollar stores.

"I usually shop here because they have what I want for cheap," Koele says. "But I wouldn't say I come here because of the economy. I did it before."

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