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Spanish consumers cut spending as crisis bites

Spaniards are buying fewer cars, fewer clothes and even cutting back on smoking as a grinding recession and rising unemployment force them to slash spending, dealing a severe blow to manufacturers and shops.

Spanish consumers cut spending as crisis bites
Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP

Last week, the headlines surrounding big brands such as Spanish fashion retailer Blanco and tobacco group Altadis highlighted the fallout of the consumer slump in Spain.

Blanco, a budget high street chain which has 300 shops in 27 countries and 2,000 employees, said it had filed for insolvency due to "the difficult economic situation facing the country which has touched consumer spending and credit markets very specifically".

Clothing sales in Spain are down by 8.7 percent this year, the seventh consecutive year that they have fallen, according to clothing retail lobby group ACOTEX.

Altadis, a French-Spanish offshoot of British-based Imperial Tobacco, then announced it would axe nearly 10 percent of its staff in Spain as cigarette sales slumped in the face of no-smoking bans and a booming black market in the recession-hit country.

The company said its cigarette sales had gone up in smoke in Spain, with volumes slumping by 40 percent in the past four years.

It blamed the drop on the smoking ban which came into effect in Spanish cafés and restaurants on January 1, 2011 as well as "a considerable increase in illegal sales, provoked largely by the situation of economic crisis."

Sales of tobacco have plunged from 4.51 billion packages in 2008, the year the country's economic downturn began, to 2.67 billion packages in 2012.

"In Spain we are not only facing a financial, economic and employment crisis, it is also a crisis in confidence and that is reflected in consumer spending, which does not stop falling," said Celia Ferrero, the vice-president of ATA, an association that represents small entrepreneurs.

Spain, the eurozone's fourth-largest economy, is still struggling to overcome the aftermath of a property bubble that imploded in 2008, destroying millions of jobs and sending debt levels soaring.

The jobless rate has rocketed to a record 27 percent and this, combined with sharp government spending cuts and tax hikes aimed at slashing a ballooning public deficit, has led consumers to tighten their wallets.

Retail sales in Spain fell 2.6 percent in April — the 34th straight monthly decline.

"The rise in unemployment has caused families to set priorities when making purchases. Obviously they can't deprive themselves of essential items such as food and basic supplies, but consumption of other items declines," said Rocio Algeciras, a spokeswoman for Spanish consumer group FACUA.

"We are very concerned that this will continue as the state of the economy and employment will not improve," she added.

The government predicts the unemployment rate will not fall below 25 percent until 2016.

Automakers predict some 700,000 cars will be sold in Spain this year, compared to yearly sales of 1.5 million vehicles recorded before the start of the economic crisis.

Spanish consumers are also switching off their mobile phones in droves.

Some 300,000 phones were cut off in March, the eighth consecutive monthly decline.

Electrical retailer Darty will close its 43 stores in Spain in June. The company's Spanish operations posted a loss of €15.6 million ($20.4 million) last year.

Spain has lost nearly 47,000 small business, along with the half a million jobs which they had created, since the start of the economic crisis, according to Ferrero.

"It is a very serious situation because the sector has a very big weight in the Spanish economy and employs nearly three million people," she said, adding that many stores needed to reinvent themselves and adapt their hours better to consumers' needs.

The government on Friday approved a plan to support the retail sector and make it more competitive by facilitating the obtaining of loans and making it easier to sell goods online.

Spain's retail sector needs a restructuring, according to Jose Luis Nueno, a management professor at the IESE Business School in Madrid.

"During the boom years we opened too many stores. Spain is the country with the most stores in Europe," he said.

Retail sales could however rebound in 2014, Nueno said.

"But we will not return to the level of consumer spending that we had before," he added.

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CRISIS

Elderly deaf and dumb couple face eviction over son’s debt

The proposed eviction of an elderly couple who are deaf and dumb and can’t read or write because they unwittingly acted as guarantors for their son’s bank loan has sparked public outcry in Spain.

Elderly deaf and dumb couple face eviction over son's debt
Photo: Benjamin Pleguezuelos / change.org

Bankia made the decision on Monday to cancel the eviction of an elderly couple who are disabled and illiterate after bowing to public pressure and a change.org petition that collected 220,000 signatures in just 48 hours.

Last month Maria del Carmen Lebron, 81, and Antonio Pleguezuelos, 76 who have lived in their home in the Madrid suburb of Pinto since 1970 were given an eviction notice as Bankia called in an outstanding debt owed by their son Gregorio.

It was only then that they learnt that in 2005 they had signed documents acting as guarantors for a €219,500 mortgage for their son, even though they hadn’t understood what they were signing.

In fact the mortgage agreement states that the contract was read out to the couple by a notary and that they had fully understood and agreed the terms. Their lawyers now argue that the agreement was invalid as both are completely deaf – Antonio lost his hearing when he was four years old after falling ill with meningitis and Maria del Carmen was deaf since birth.

When their son lost his job in the crisis and fell behind on mortgage payments the bank called in the debt and demanded they leave their house by January 30th 2017.

  Their eldest son Benjamin made the case public starting a petition on change.org which garnered more than 200,000 signatures in just 48 hours and made headlines across Spain.

On Monday, Bankia announced that it had stopped the eviction order and would cancel the debt “given the particular vulnerability observed in this case”.

The case highlights the still ongoing plight of indebted homeowners suffering years of unemployment as a result of Spain’s economic crisis.

During the peak of the eviction crisis as banks called in loans, hundreds of families were evicted each day. In 2013, some 50,000 families were turfed out of their homes.

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