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Fix-it philosophy a winner for hard times

REPAIR and refurbishment firms are flourishing in the United States, as the financial crisis has consumers thinking twice about buying new goods. Tim Gaynor looks at the fix-it winners.

On a gritty corner in Tucson, Arizona, used tire store owner Andy Alexander says business is fine despite the economic downturn ?? and partly because of it.

"When people come in here, they know we are not going to give them that new-tire pitch. We're going to say 'We can make this tire work for you,' and send them on the road," says Alexander, who patches tires for US$5 and offers a set of used tires from US$60.

As tens of thousands of workers are laid off across the United States each week and many more fear for their jobs, businesses from auto makers to television manufacturers are having an increasingly hard time selling new goods.

But repair and refurbishment firms, ranging from small family businesses like Alexander's to publicly traded companies, are doing well extending the lives of much-needed items that keep people going through hard times.

While Alexander's firm keeps cars rolling, at the Mt Lookout Shoe Repair in Cincinnati, Ohio, manager Matt Switzer keeps his customers well-shod. The firm's business of fixing shoes, luggage and other leather goods has been increasing steadily for over a year, with the small shop now taking in 70 to 100 orders a day.

"A lot of people say they'd rather put US$40 into a pair of shoes than US$100 for a new pair, and we get that more and more every day," Switzer says.

The current recession has led to the loss of more than 3.6 million jobs nationwide since it began in late 2007. Nervous consumers have become wary of buying new items.

But at Switzer's in Ohio, completed repairs, stored in brown paper bags with ticket attached, are stacked to the ceiling behind the counter, awaiting pickup.

"You hear shoe repair always does good in a depression, and that's what we're hoping for," he says.

In Phoenix, guitar mender Robert Super says the downturn had boosted the number of musicians beating a path to his door to get their instruments repaired.

"A lot more guys are bringing in guitars and saying, 'Hey, I know this thing's beat up, I know it's on its last legs, but I don't have enough money to get a new one,'" says Super, who owns Guitar & Electronics Repair Center in central Phoenix.

"It's the tool of the trade, and they absolutely have to have it ... it's like a hammer to a construction worker."

Super's services often cost customers, most of whom are professionals, little less than the US$200-to-US$300 price of a new instrument.

"Our customers are telling us that they don't have that extra US$50 to replace the guitar," he said.

Recently President Barack Obama signed a US$787 billion stimulus plan into law, hoping to turn the economy around and avoid a second Great Depression.

While many businesses doing well in the downturn are smaller, family-owned firms, a few larger companies are also thriving, including car parts retailer O'Reilly Automotive.

Last month financial newspaper Barron's named O'Reilly the most appealing company in its sector as many Americans opted to make do with their old cars rather than buy new ones.

Meanwhile, Texas-based furniture and appliance rental company Rent-A-Center Inc, which offers rent-to-buy contracts on items ranging from refrigerators to flat-screen televisions, has gone from the red into the black during 2008.

For business owners like Alexander, accustomed to helping customers make do, thrift is a way of thinking that will likely become more familiar to many Americans in months ahead.

"People want to save money," he says standing on the scuffed floor of his workshop. "They want to make those tires last until they get that income tax check or something."


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