At National Pawn’s three Wilmington locations, business during the COVID-19 pandemic has been steady in an unexpected way.
Shawn Rowell excepted a jump in the number of people pawning items at the stores he manages for National Pawn in Wilmington and Fayetteville during the pandemic. Instead, the shops saw an uptick in the number of customers coming in to browse and buy the store’s tools, jewelry, electronics, handbags and other items.
During the pandemic, North Carolina pawn shops were deemed essential businesses, which meant they remained open while other types of businesses were forced to temporarily shut down.
“They deemed us an essential business during COVID because of our financial aspect,” Rowell said. “People need to borrow money for a short term whether they’re employed or not employed.”
Pawn shops like National Pawn allow customers to pawn items in exchange for a loan. The customer can get the item back by paying back the loan and its accumulated interest. The shop also purchases items from customers that they then sell.
“It’s more than just retail. It’s a financial institution,” Douglas Zelaya, a pawnbroker at National Pawn’s Dawson Street location, said.
Rowell said he attributes the increase in retail customers during the pandemic to other businesses being closed and people having more time on their hands.
The pawn shop’s “core” group of customers were also more likely to receive government assistance during the pandemic, Rowell said, which could explain why the stores didn’t see a jump in the number of items being pawned for loans.
“Our core client base were receiving additional unemployment, the stimulus checks, the additional government assistance for childcare, what have you,” Rowell said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rowell expected to see the opposite.
“When COVID first hit we expected a sharp increase in the loan side of our business and people selling things because we figured their businesses would slow down,” he said. “We did not anticipate the government providing as much assistance as they did.”
National Pawn acquired two new stores in Wilmington during the COVID-19 pandemic from Picasso Pawn. They already owned a store on College Road.
Things at the pawn shop slowly moved “back to almost normal” this summer as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. But since the delta variant has caused the number of COVID-19 cases to tick up locally, Zelaya noticed a slight drop in the number of people coming into the store.
When they do come in, the shop’s tools section has become popular with customers.
“The tool section has been our stronghold,” Zelaya said. “Everybody’s looking for drills. They’re looking for miter saws, table saws … that’s the one that’s been the biggest impact.”
Wilmington has more than 10 pawn shops. That compares pretty closely, per capita, to the number of shops in North Carolina cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, Rowell said.
Many of Wilmington’s pawn shops are clustered within the city. For instance, there are three pawn shops around the intersection of Oleander Drive and College Road.
Two other pawn shops are located within one mile of O.P.M. Pawn Co., Bill Watkins, the shop’s owner said.
It’s unclear why the Wilmington’s pawn shops are so tightly clustered, but Rowell thinks this trend could be explained by the fact that similar businesses often choose to locate near one another.
Watkins said the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t have a huge impact on his shop’s business. But in recent years, he has noticed a drop in the value of items that customers bring in to pawn or sell.
“They’re bringing in junk,” he said, “and I don’t want it.”
In the past, Watkins, who’s been in business for 21 years, said he would see more people pawning jewelry and other items made of gold. Now, he hardly sees any gold, but he’s not sure why that trend is occurring.
Rowell regularly encounters what he says are “misconceptions” about the pawn business that people often pick up from movies and popular culture.
For example, some people think pawn shops sell stolen items. Pawnbrokers at the stores he manages make it a point to ask numerous questions about each item. Customers are also required to present identification. These measures have helped make stolen items in pawn shops rare.
National Pawn has also tried to change the image of pawn shops by ensuring their stores are well-lit and that pawnbrokers look professional, Rowell said.
Zelaya’s own perspective of pawn shops has changed since he started working at National Pawn in January. He said he’s learned that pawn shops take steps to make sure the items they buy are valuable and in working condition.
“A lot of people have the notion that it’s just a junkyard shop,” Zelaya said. “That is not the truth at all.”
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]