LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
You've heard about businesses doing poorly in the downtrodden economy, and you've heard about the bargain stores that usually thrive in tough economic times. Thrift shops. But, there are others which provide luxury goods and services that are also doing well. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, they're surprising even themselves.
TOVIA SMITH: In tough times, you'd think it'd be the first thing to go.
DIANE: Hi, Donna, I'm Diane. I'll be your message therapist today.
WERTHEIMER: Nice to meet you.
DIANE: Nice to meet you. So, if you'd...
SMITH: From the waiting room at the 1-on-1-Self-Indulgence Day Spa in Concord, Massachusetts, take the double doors on the right.
WERTHEIMER: (whispering) Just watch your step right here. Try a river walk.
SMITH: And you enter a world of indulgence.
WERTHEIMER: (whispering) That's our couple's room, or our calming room for two. It's a prelude to our signature massage and, you know, it's - you feel like butter afterwards.
SMITH: Tempting, for sure. But owner Cindy McCullough is the first to acknowledge it's definitely in the discretionary spending column. Back out in the lobby, she says she's been watching so many businesses fail, she was preparing for the worst.
WERTHEIMER: I told my staff, brace yourself. It might be slow. We might be dead. We might not have anybody.
SMITH: But instead, McCullough says, sales are up some 10 percent over their record high.
WERTHEIMER: It's shocking. It's shocking. You know, you got to check your books twice. I go to my business partner, hey, you know.
SMITH: McCullough says she keeps hearing the same story. People are cutting out their big expenses, like vacation and travel, and spending more on smaller indulgences like massage.
WERTHEIMER: That's exactly what I'm doing.
SMITH: Donna Tito says she's been working extra nursing shifts since her husband, an investment real-estate broker, saw his income cut in half. So when it came time for vacation?
WERTHEIMER: I tried to get my husband to go away, but he said no. And so I said, well, I'll just stay and maybe go get a massage and maybe facials and just try to take care and treat yourself.
U: All right. Bring it up and easy.
SMITH: Just across the street, you hear much the same story at the studio called Yoga and Nia For Life.
U: Especially the head. Let the head go.
SMITH: Among the two dozen women packed into this group is Lisa Daigle, who decided to take two dance classes a day during her vacation this year, instead of her usual exotic travels that have taken her everywhere from Kenya to Mount Kilimanjaro.
WERTHEIMER: I'm not saying that I wouldn't go on these vacations again, don't get me wrong. But I don't feel regrets or denial, because you're going to this dance class that's designed to really nurture your mind and your body and your spirit, right. And there's, I think, a very transformative effect.
U: All right. Like you're standing on top of Mount Everest. Oh my God. Ready?
SMITH: It's exactly the kind of comfort consumption that experts say always spikes during stressful times like a recession. Add in the substitution effect, that people are traveling less, eating out at restaurants less and staying home more, and it's no wonder business is booming as well at liquor store.
U: Do you have a section on Spanish wines?
U: Yes, we do. Right here in the back here.
SMITH: At Murray's Liquors in Newton, Massachusetts, customer Peter Buechler says that down economy has just forced him to close his consulting business. As he looks for a new job, he says he's reallocated what money he has. Theater, restaurants, and football games have been cut...
WERTHEIMER: Instead of going to the Patriots, we get a couple of bottles and sit around the tube just as well.
SMITH: So, bottom line, you've saved.
WERTHEIMER: Oh, yes.
SMITH: But your total spending on alcohol is up?
WERTHEIMER: It is. I can tell when I do the recycling there are more bottles. So something must have happened to them.
SMITH: Nationally, the liquor store sales are up as much as 10 percent. But Murray's owner, Mark Greenberg, says it's the cheaper stuff now that's selling.
WERTHEIMER: We have certainly increased our two-for department, two-for-tens, two-for-twelves. So people can still enjoy a good bottle of wine by shopping in stores and taking it home.
SMITH: So the restaurants' loss is your gain?
WERTHEIMER: I'm sorry to say that, but I think it's very true.
SMITH: Then, as if on cue, Greenberg gets a fax.
WERTHEIMER: OK, here's an - (laughing) here's an order we just got in from - I can't say the name - a company that deals in bankruptcy law.
SMITH: (laughing) There you go. And they're probably doing well, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WERTHEIMER: I bet they are doing well.
SMITH: It may not be a luxury, but that's one other business that booms when others bomb. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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