Image: A shop owner moves a safe
Darren Staples  /  Reuters
"In a downturned economy, people are seeing increased interest in protecting something," said Lowe's Cos. Inc. spokeswoman Karen Cobb.
updated 10/10/2008 1:49:31 PM ET 2008-10-10T17:49:31

Afraid cash isn't secure even behind the thick walls of banks, more people are turning to something that's protected money since the days of Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde: safes.

The metal vaults are so popular in some parts of the country that shoppers are depleting store supplies as worries about the nation's economy spread.

"What people are putting in them, I have no idea," said Lowe's Cos. Inc. spokeswoman Karen Cobb. "But in a downturned economy, people are seeing increased interest in protecting something."

During the three months ending June 30, the latest period for which data is available, domestic bank deposits slipped by nearly $40 billion, according to federal data.

And so far this year, market declines have erased $8.7 trillion in wealth. That's a figure so staggering some are cashing out assets and shifting other investments in a no-holds-barred effort to staunch the bleeding.

At SentrySafe, the nation's top safe manufacturer, sales are up as much as 50 percent in the past three weeks as nervous people try to lock up assets.

"Their home values have plummeted and they've been scared silly as they see their 401(k) values fall off," said Doug Brush, the company's chief business development officer. "It's understandable that people are looking to gain control and bring things that are valuable and important to them home."

Christopher Ryan, a chiropractor in Waterloo, N.Y., already owns three safes and plans to buy a fourth safe to store cash he's saving for a boat.

"You see the stocks are going down ... ," he said. "I think I'm better off just keeping the cash for myself."

Experts advise against hoarding assets
But financial advisers say cashing out entirely and hoarding assets in safes is probably unwise.

"It's just stupid," said Karl Blovet, a certified public account and financial planner in Chicago. "That just displays panic."

Still, business is up 15 percent at Advanced Safes in Avondale, Ariz., where sales began climbing after the federal government offered a $700 billion federal banking bailout last month.

"When they started talking about billions as if they were hundreds of dollars, people started calling," said Lawrence Hilliard, the company's director of operations. "They're worried."

So worried, that customers are requesting the company deliver massive vaults at peculiar hours to keep prying eyes of neighbors at bay.

"They don't want neighbors to think, 'Uh oh, they've got something to put in it,'" Hilliard said.

Lowe's wouldn't provide specific sales figures for competitive reasons, but said safe supplies at some stores in major cities had to be restocked because of high demand. Cobb said the Mooresville, N.C.-based chain noticed "significant" growth in sales about six weeks ago.

Meanwhile, officials at Atlanta-based The Home Depot Inc. said safe sales have seen double-digit increases in the past two weeks, and safe-maker Honeywell reports sales that are 50 percent higher than usual during the past three weeks.

The market for safes typically climbs during dour economic times — a pattern repeated during the gold and silver crisis of the '70s, stock market crash of the '80s, the Y2K fears in 2000 and even after 9/11.

But this time, Edward Baroody, president of Gardall Safe Corp. in Syracuse, N.Y., thinks the trend will be more long-lasting and pronounced.

"People start shifting assets into other vehicles than just banks, and they need someplace to store that new asset," said Baroody, whose business is up as much as 30 percent. "I think there will be a lot of people are buying safes to try to protect what they've accumulated over these last five or 10 years."

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