Several friends in other parts of the country have asked me in the last couple weeks what New York is like in these days after Wall Street’s collapse. I wish I could say something more dramatic, but day-to-day, it seems very much like it was two months ago or a year ago. Restaurants and bars are still busy, the subways are still crowded. Maybe the line at the Starbucks I pass each morning is a little shorter, although that could just be the end of the summer tourist season.
But a closer look shows some signs of pullback, here and around the country. I spent last week looking at some soft indicators of business activity. For example, FedEx document shipping is down, as are business jet takeoffs and landings. (Both, incidentally, were already down during the summer, before Lehman’s bankruptcy tipped off the financial crisis.)
Small companies also feel the ripple effects, especially here, where so many businesses depend one way or another on the wealth that used to be generated on Wall Street. One telling example: shoe shine guys are getting wiped out, with business down as much as 30 percent since September. A Texas company that does holiday greeting card mailings for corporations is seeing growth stall as big customers scale back. Some businesses haven’t felt much of an impact—a local wine shop that caters to a business crowd told me that sales have been steady through October, but the owner is nervous going into the holiday season.
Two more bellwethers: Jeff Coplon in New York magazine reports this week on how one cabbie is feeling the lean times. And on NPR’s Planet Money podcast, Chana Joffe-Walt talks with her Seattle mail carrier about how the downturn manifests in her route, like an increase in certified mail—collections letters are generally sent certified. (That story starts at about 16:45, although the entire podcast is worth listening to.)
I think the big picture is this: even if you don’t yet see any signs of the downturn out your window (or in your sales receipts), it’s real. Small businesses need to think about how and when they’ll be affected—not if.