Monday, November 26, 2007

I recently returned from the U.S.

I was on the road again recently to have a look around. I decided it was time to venture away from my desk here in Europe to have a closer view of what effects the U.S. housing market is having on American consumers. You know, a kind of view from the parking lot.

I started my journey in Boston on a month long tour of the East coast and found things quieter than I expected. On a previous visit to Boston I was greeted by blaring horns, a veritable wall of sound, as soon as I walked out of the airport. (It’s how Bostonians communicate) This time however I heard none of the customary car horn communication as I exited Logan airport, it was down right subdued...

I caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel and found it virtually empty. It was so quiet I felt like the last man on Earth in one of those science fiction flicks. I asked an employee if things were slow and was told confidentially that business was a little off. If that was a little off I wonder how a serious downturn looks.

I spent more than a week in Massachusetts and visited a number of local chain stores including Wal-Mart, they were quiet. I haven’t spent much time in Wal-Mart’s but they are big stores and you would expect to see a fair number of people in them... not this time, or any other time I visited.

I made a number of trips to Ace hardware as well for a little project I was working on. The lights were bright, the musak was playing and the shelves were nicely stocked, it took me a while to notice that I was the only one in the whole store besides the employees and this was the story on more than one occasion.

Traveling around Boston and other areas I passed through, I noticed a lot of empty retail spaces, and businesses like Best Buy, Staples etc. were not populated with customers. All looked normal except for an extreme lack of people spending money. It all looked very sleepy.

Traveling south to North Carolina in a 40 foot motor home I noticed there was not a lot of traffic, this was true all the way south on my journey. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised with the economy slowing as it is and gas prices rising as they are, but I have been living in Europe for the past four years and things are not how I left them. This new reality is unsettling.

****

Down in North Carolina, things were quiet as well. As fate would have it, motor home maintenance brought me to Lowe's, (LOW: NYSE) a number of times, you know, the big hardware store. The situation was the similar down there - big store, no customers. There were a few but the parking lot is vast and so is the store and the best I can say is that it was quiet, very quiet.

I’d gone into a number of establishments around Wilmington and had been the only person there on every occasion. Even the Post Office was quiet on a Monday! Anyone who tries to tell me there is no recession is full of crap.

I had occasion to shop for some clothes at an Eddie Bauer store at the Mayfair Mall outside of Wilmington. Mayfair is an upscale area and home to the more affluent, the kind of people whose spending habits are said not to be affected by an economic slowdown.

The mall is new and laid out like a walking village, a pleasure for even me; a guy who hates shopping, to go to. Eddie Bauer however was empty save for two employees who seemed very happy to see me. With little else to do they acted as my personal shopping assistants. Maybe it's because I live in Europe where if you ask for assistance you are liable to be slapped in the back of the head and shown the door. But it seemed like a lot of help for a guy who just wanted to buy a shirt. Not to mention the steep discounts I found there.

Anyway, only two other people entered while I was there which was the better part of an hour. One wanted directions and the other was looking for a job. Sales were not brisk. This was consistent with most other stores in the mall.

My overall impression on this trip was, things have slowed dramatically and if they stay this slow Christmas will be bleak.


*****


I will be hitting the road in the U.S. next year with my family, touring the bubble cities of America. I will be reporting what I see from my travels and keeping you informed on the meltdown from a more front line perspective. I will also be keeping a travel log and I'm currently planning a video blog of our year long journey across the States which I will link to from this blog. Keep me bookmarked or subscribe to my feed.

Vern

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