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Ride With UPS Provides Window on Economy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Of course the economy has slowed to a crawl. Just don't tell UPS (UPS) driver Emory Spears, who still delivers 300 to 400 packages each day.

"Every morning, when you put on that brown uniform, you're like a football player or a basketball player: It's time to go into battle," says Spears, 53. He has been a UPS driver for 31 years, the last 28 on the same route in Charlotte's upscale Dilworth neighborhood, full of small businesses, medical officers and small, neat single-family residences.

UPS was once viewed as a leading indicator, in the days when consumers shopped at malls and businesses ordered supplies months in advance. But in today's just-in-time, click-to-order world, the biggest package shipper has become a proxy for the economy in real time, with 6% of the U.S. GDP and 2% of the world's GDP in its system at any given moment.

Veteran UPS driver Emory Spears (in his truck) chatted with TSC staff writer Ted Reed (foreground, in uniform, too) about how business in the Charlotte, N.C. region has fared during the economic downturn.

Interviews with Dilworth businesses, conducted as Spears dropped off packages, indicated that a few have been badly hurt. But for many, life goes on, with the impact of local events far more compelling than the macro trends of the world economy.

In fact, "this year is better than last year," for Dan Jacks, owner of Berrybrook Farm natural foods store. A local event explains this phenomenon: a block away, a locally owned health food supermarket shut down this summer, the victim of increasing competition from national health food chain stores in Charlotte. Before the shutdown, Jacks said, his sales were down slightly.

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