Children in San Mateo, Calif., whispered their wish lists to Santa Claus this weekend at Best Collateral, a pawnshop in a strip mall about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
And if their parents didn’t mind discounted gifts — well, to be realistic, used or hocked ones — they did their shopping there, too.
Christmas this year has come to the neighborhood pawnshop — and business is booming like never before.
Sue Gallagher, 54, is one shopper who now works through her Christmas list at a pawnshop before heading to Wal-Mart or Target .
She recently bought a television for her daughter at Tom’s Pawn Shop in Lake Jackson, Tex., a “decent-sized flat-screen TV for less than $100.” She described the experience as festive, with “garlands and tinsel and some music playing in the background.”
“I didn’t feel like I was shopping in a pawnshop,” said Ms. Gallagher, who works for a nursing service.
Tom’s is not the only pawnshop that is thriving. At the Pawn America chain of stores in the Midwest, the founder Brad Rixmann said his business was up 50 percent this holiday season over last year. In San Diego, Yigal Adato, a co-owner of CashCo Pawn, said customers were showing up with Christmas lists, desperate to save money.
“We’ve had a couple of customers who say, ‘You know, if it wasn’t for you guys’ prices, my kids wouldn’t be getting anything this year,’ “ Mr. Adato said.
While some customers have always bought Christmas gifts at pawnshops, only recently has the idea gained widespread acceptance, said Emmett Murphy, a spokesman for the National Pawnbrokers Association. So far, this holiday season has been the best one yet, he said.
Many pawnshops, in turn, are embracing holiday shoppers like never before, offering promotions long deployed by more traditional stores, like “25 Days of Deals,” “Black Friday” specials— even visits from Santa. It underlines how the recession has hit those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, for whom even Wal-Mart can be too expensive.
“We want people to think of us as an alternative to Target, Best Buy,” Mr. Rixmann said. “You can buy stocking stuffers for next to nothing.”
The gloomy economy is the most immediate explanation, but industry experts also point to the success of television shows like “Pawn Stars,” which have attracted a more mainstream audience to the stores.