Repair shops ride out the storm

Tough economic times are good for business at the Shoe Doc in the Eastland Shopping Center.

"We always do better when the economy turns down," said employee Linda Stansell. "It's cheaper to get shoes repaired than go out and buy new ones."

For women's shoes, the Shoe Doc charges $6.50 for new heels. "So even if they have a $10 pair of shoes, it's better to get new heels than go and buy a new pair," Stansell said.

As the economy tightens, repair shops that fix washers, dryers, dishwashers, televisions, even automobiles, frequently see business pick up as consumers opt to get an item repaired rather than buy new. It's cheaper.

Yet several repair shop owners and service managers said even they are seeing a slowdown.

"If a dishwasher's broke, for $1.49 each, you can buy a lot of bottles of Dawn instead of paying a $75 service fee, plus parts," said Donnie Prather, owner of Prather Services, an appliance repair business.

"Or take a stove. Say the oven won't bake," he said. "That's no big deal as long as you've got four burners on top. Or say a burner went out. You've still got three more to cook on."

Working families must weigh whether to have an appliance repaired or put their money elsewhere, Prather said.

Repairs on appliances under warranty have slowed as retail sales dropped, starting about a year ago, but not as much as cash service calls. "Our cash calls have dropped tremendously," said Prather, in business since 1986. The slowdown in business is twice as bad as the slowdown in the early 1990s, he said. "You'd have a hard time finding anyone telling you their cash service-call business is up."

At Brown Appliance Parts, manager John Stephens said his business is good mostly because his best clients are do-it-yourselfers. "When money gets tight, people are more likely to buy a $15 belt for their 20-year-old dryer and install it themselves.

When the economy is good, he said, "people look for excuses to go out and buy a new appliance. Now they're not taking on new debt because you never know what's going to happen."

Lawn mowers and string trimmers rolled into Chevy Chase Hardware for repairs this summer, as sales of new lawn mowers dropped by half. "People are deciding to keep the old clunker and get another year out of it," said owner Bill Edwards, owner of the neighborhood store on East High Street.

Even several auto repair shops said business had slowed. Owners are putting off repairs until they're absolutely necessary, said J.C. Lewis, owner of J.C.'s Auto Repairs in Versailles. "When it dies, that's when they have it fixed."

At Baker Performance and Autocare, Ken Baker sees cars brought in for repair, but only for the most essential work. "They only want me to repair what's absolutely broken. If a car needs new brake pads, they only want brake pads, don't replace the rotors," he said.

"It actually seems ignorant to me because we can throw parts on for just the cost and no extra labor. But they won't do it."

Pieratt's, a family-owned appliance store celebrating 60 years in business, is seeing a unique twist as people try to bargain down the cost of a repair. When a technician diagnoses a problem costing $250 to fix, an owner will say, "Can you do it for $200?"

Until recently, it was something Chris Elkins, office manager in the service department, saw no more than a couple times a year. "We're getting maybe 20 a week now," he said.

The cost of many appliances is so cheap, sometimes it doesn't pay to repair even a malfunctioning mixer or fan, or even a television.

Daniel Sowder has worked as an electronics technician for seven years and has seen a steady decline in small service centers. Employed by Doc's Electronics Service Center in Nicholasville, Sowder makes calls as far south as Somerset and up to Maysville.

That is warranty work for national chain stores such as Circuit City. "They pay mileage because there are so few service centers left," he said.

Technicians at Barney Miller's on Main Street decide whether a television is worth fixing before they start taking it apart. This assessment is based on its quality, performance and age. Better quality televisions and other electronic equipment are worth repairing, said owner Barney Miller. "The cheapie stuff, you throw away."