By ANNE KADET
When Jim De Lisa's chain of six furniture stores went belly-up midrecession, the New Jersey father of five found himself in a fix. He was suddenly unemployed and broke, and his credit score, he says, was "in the crapper." Pushed to the edge by looming house and car payments, he did the unthinkable: He pawned his wife's $18,000 engagement ring. But no one ever saw him visit the pawnshop -- De Lisa hocked the 1.7-karat stunner over the Internet.
Is no industry immune to the inexorable forces of technology and gentrification? These days, even the pawn business is going upscale. Pawn merchants say the recessionary credit crunch is bringing in more middle-class clients along with small businesses seeking short-term loans to meet payroll. Jordan Tabach-Bank, CEO of Beverly Loan Co. in Beverly Hills ("Pawnshop to the Stars"), says he's seen a flood of doctors, lawyers and accountants hocking valuables to keep their kids in private school. There's a pawn store reality show airing on the History Channel and an iPhone app to help high-tech indigents locate the nearest pawnbroker. If the trend continues, hocking the family jewels may become as mainstream as applying for a credit card.
While pawnshops still charge eye-popping interest rates (up to 25 percent in some states), the once shady industry is rapidly going Disney. Pawn consultant Steve Krupnik says the sector's three publicly traded chains took cues from traditional retailers, deploying clean-cut employees, suburban locations and efficient technology. "They've forced the marginal operators to clean up," he adds.
Some of the nation's 13,000 pawnshops lure the (formerly) affluent with private appointments and house visits. In New York, EZ Pawn, an eight-store chain, is placing ads in local magazines. Pawn magnate Craig McCall, whose 13 Oregon and Arizona locations are in traditional shopping centers (two are in former Hollywood Video stores), decorates some shops with wainscoting and leather chairs at the loan desk: "There's no bars anywhere!" He even tried dressing his associates in shirts and ties, but they got too grubby lugging pawned lawn mowers and power tools. He settled for red polo shirts and khakis.
Perhaps the most intriguing new model is Jim De Lisa's lender: Pawngo.com, an online pawnbroker backed by $3.8 million in venture capital. Clients get an online estimate, FedEx their valuables to the company's Centennial, Colo., office park vault (Pawngo pays the shipping and insurance), and get a loan wired to their bank account within 24 hours. CEO Todd Hills says most of his clients wouldn't dream of frequenting a pawnshop -- they're hocking Cartier watches, Louis Vuitton bags, even a Picasso. His typical loan runs about $1,700, 17 times the $100 pawn-industry average.
The upside: Like all pawn loans, Pawngo transactions are never reported to the credit bureaus. If you default, all you've got to lose is your dearly departed mother's wedding ring. But the price for discretion is stiff; Pawngo's annual percentage rates range from 48 to 84 percent, depending on loan size. De Lisa says he paid more than $4,000 in interest on his 15-month loan worth less than $8,000. At least he's getting the ring back in time for his sixth wedding anniversary. And the experience has him considering new options: "I should open my own pawnshop!"