Recession's latest victim: convenience

CHICAGO — First came the housing bust, followed by eroding job security and dwindling retirement accounts.

Now, the worst downturn in decades is nibbling away at something so entrenched that people took it for granted: simple, everyday convenience.

It can be as little as driving a few extra miles to buy sheets at Bed Bath & Beyond instead of the now-defunct Linens 'N Things. It's the grumbling that comes with the trash being picked up once a week instead of twice. Or finding there's a long wait to use a computer at the public library.

Regardless of the cause, navigating the altered landscape can leave people scrambling.

Los Angeles costume designer Laura Frecon, 32, custom-ordered vintage-inspired tap shoes for a musical, but she found the store darkened and locked when she arrived to fetch the footwear.

The business, which once operated from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., cut its hours in half because of sluggish sales. Some days, it doesn't open at all.

With the lead actress shoeless, Frecon stood in the store's parking lot and called the owner, who eventually drove over so Frecon could retrieve her shoes.

"When I placed an order and I needed to pick it up and they're not open during regular business hours, that affects my job," she said. "It makes it tougher to do my job well."

The changes businesses are making — such as the law office in Chicago that stopped providing employees with free coffee — are usually aimed at staving off more drastic initiatives, including layoffs and wage cuts.

In the most dramatic instances, experts said, small changes can help businesses keep their doors open as consumer spending falls and unemployment grows.

"If having a business open an extra hour is more of a cost than a benefit, it's a pretty easy decision to cut back on hours," said Virginia Commonwealth University marketing professor David Urban. "In the big scheme of things, consumers are already cutting back dramatically on dining, travel and other non-necessary expenditures, to stay afloat financially. So in a sense, they are doing the same things in their personal lives that retailers are doing in their business lives."

Walgreens, the nation's largest biggest drugstore by sales, is in the midst of scaling back hours of about 10 percent of its nearly 1,600 24-hour pharmacies to cut costs. The company, based in Deerfield, Ill., wouldn't say how much it hopes to save by the effort, which began late last year. Pharmacies across the country are affected.

Beyond shorter hours, other businesses are getting creative.

Travelers trying to power up on Vitamin C might find fewer options at breakfast buffets. Executives at Marriott International said the hotelier might drop items such as some fruit selections from the breakfast buffets — or ditch them entirely for menu ordering — if occupancy rates at some locations are too low because fewer people are traveling.