Economic Recession has Quinceañera boutiques in unfamiliar predicament

But the economic downturn is forcing families to cut back on expenses, putting a damper on the excitement and – for these establishments – on the big profits.

The quinceañera is the traditional Hispanic rite of passage celebration for young women. Basic expenditures include the dress and accessories, cakes, invitations, party-room rentals and decorations, and music and entertainment. Many quinceañeras also rent limousine services for the night – all of which adds up to thousands of dollars. According to Hearst Digital Media, which in 2007 launched its own quinceañera Web site, misquincemag, as many as 400,000 young women have quinceañeras in the United States every year. In 2006, on-line, party-planning Web site Partyspot reported the average cost of the celebration at $8,000.

But recently, those figures have dropped. Quinceañera specialty boutiques, such as Precious Bride, are not only feeling the pinch from families spending less, they’re also seeing less customers overall.

"During the weekdays, no one comes in anymore," said Carolina Osorio, sales associate at Precious Bride.

"On weekends, we were packed, but now, we only get a few customers. There’s not much to do," she said.

The shop has been in business on Whittier Boulevard for more than 12 years but has never faced such a grim sales period. Management has been forced to cut back prices and reduce staff in efforts to stay in business.

Dresses, for example, range in price from $200 to upwards of $1,500. Those that cost $800 two years ago are now $400. Still, people are being frugal.

"She wanted a $700 dress, but we can only afford a $200 one – same for the shoes. We’ve had to cut down on expenses," said Alfonso Mendoza, who’s preparing for his daughter’s quinceañera.

As recently as 2007, there were five sales associates on staff at Precious Bride. Now, it’s down to Osorio and another worker. She said she used to work a 40-hour week, but her hours gradually fell to the point she was asked to work Sundays only.

"We’re thinking about shutting down once our contract expires," she said.

Just a few blocks up the street at Casa Gastelum, the situation is just as bleak.

"We would sell merchandise everyday, but now, we’ll go an entire week without selling anything," said Carmen Gonzalez, a sales associate at Casa Gastelum.

Like Precious Bride, it’s failing to break even or make enough money to pay rent, and it’s the duration of the economic downturn that has management desperate and concerned.

"When someone walks in here, we’re not letting go of them until they buy something," said Gonzalez.

One of the few customers to stop by, Irene Dominguez, said she is organizing a very simple party for her daughter.

"My husband can’t find a job," she said. "Sometimes he works only three days a week so there’s no budget to throw anything too expensive."

Gonzalez said they want to keep the establishment open but may not have a choice.

"We can wait it out until our contract is over and close, or we can move to another location," she said.

But across town in West Los Angeles, things aren’t much better. Alba Sandoval, manager at Elizabeth’s Bridal, has seen her profit cut in half over the last year.

Her boutique specializes in bridal and quinceañera accessories such as mementos, invitations, rosaries, and silverware.

Sandoval said customers walk into her store asking for "the simplest of everything."

"I see fewer customers coming in, and those that do buy are buying less," she said.

The extent and severity of the economic bust is seen not only in the way in which families are being forced to cut back expenses on an often lavish, centuries-old, semi-religious tradition, but also in how a highly-profitable specialized business is subsequently being driven into bankruptcy.

"It’s never been this bad," said Gonzalez. "I just don’t know what we’re going to do.

"For many of these businesses on Whittier Boulevard, the party may indeed – if only temporarily – soon be over.

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