BREWER, Maine — Amy Rothe of Holden pushed a shopping cart piled high with Christmas presents around the crowded aisles of Marden’s Surplus and Salvage on Friday.
The stay-at-home mom couldn’t find the paper goods she wanted in the jumble of merchandise, but she located plenty of deals despite that.
“We are shopping here because the economy is slow,” Rothe said. “Before, I would have gone to Hallmark. Now I look in Wal-Mart and Marden’s for things that are comparable but cheaper.”
The bargain hunter is not alone.
Although the national economy is contracting — in September, retail sales posted their biggest decline in three years — the silver lining is that Maine’s discount and thrift stores are doing just fine, thanks.
“That’s usually the way it is in our business. When money gets tight, people get frugal. And when they get frugal, they shop for the bargains,” said Paul LePage, general manager of the state’s fourteen Marden’s Surplus and Salvage stores.
The Commerce Department reported last week that retail sales decreased 1.2 percent last month, nearly double the 0.7 percent drop that had been expected. It was the biggest decline since retail sales fell by 1.4 percent in August 2005.
The bigger-than-expected decline increased the risks of a recession because consumer spending is two-thirds of the country’s total economic activity.
Although there was no sign of a recession last week at Marden’s, shoppers’ buying habits have changed, LePage said. Perhaps in a reflection of the national trend, people are not buying as many luxury, big-ticket items such as flooring and furniture, but instead are concentrating on the basics.
“Food products, clothing, just general home necessities — the everyday stuff is way up,” the general manager said.
John Reny, president of the Maine Renys chain of stores, said that sales are up almost 3 percent so far this year.
“We’re going to have a good October,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an OK season for us. We sell things that people need. We try to give them value, which is a real important thing, I think.”
Reny said that he thinks the media may be overhyping the national economic troubles.
“We’re optimistic,” he said. “A lot of the losses were paper losses. Life is going on. Nobody’s begging in the streets. They’re going to work. They’re shopping.”
But many, it seems, are shopping at thrift and discount stores.
Kathy Harvey, the director of the charitable Hands of Hope thrift and discount store, said that her sales have increased by about 60 percent from last year.
More than 62 percent of members of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops reported increased sales from August 2007 to August 2008.
“People are telling me they’ve got to find a way to save,” Harvey said. “The economy is definitely helping us, not hurting us.”
The Maine economy is not immune to the national trends, said University of Maine economist Jim McConnon.
“We never rise as high from economic booms, but never drop as far from declines, but nonetheless we are tied into the national economy,” McConnon said.
According to the economist, Maine actually saw a 0.5 percent increase from August 2007 in general merchandise sales, but that overall consumer sales were down 3.8 percent in a year. That’s due in part to a 9.7 percent decline in building supply sales and an 11.7 percent drop in auto sales.
Those numbers add to consumer anxiety and give discount and thrift stores a boost, he said.
“They really benefit from value-conscious consumers,” McConnon said. “This last year and particularly going into this fall, you have a lot of value-conscious consumers across income categories.”
That’s a trend that Donnie Dyer, the general manager of Ocean State Job Lot, said that he can’t help but notice.
“You’re not just seeing Nissans and Toyotas in the parking lot; you’re also beginning to see Cadillacs and Mercedes, too. We’re seeing in our patrons very diverse social classes,” Dyer said.
McConnon said that this holiday shopping season will be crucial for Maine’s retailers, which do anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales during November and December.
The economic downturn may mean that managers of thrift and discount stores have reason to be optimistic, but some want to be cautious anyway.
“Right now, we’re hunkering down, like most everybody else,” LePage said. “We’re just looking at the economy, looking at how long the downturn will be. We’ll follow the market, too.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.