Shopping and fun

Kathi Simpson and Darlene Scocca wore snowman outfits for a day of shopping and fun at the Earlier than the Bird event on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City Saturday morning, where they met a thanksgiving turkey and Martin Z. Mullosk at the corner of Asbury Avenue. The event featured costumed characters, entertainment and more, and kicks off the downtown shopping season on Asbury Avenue. This weekend includes Christmas in the Downtown 2 to 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, along  with numerous other events. 

By BILL BARLOW Staff Writer

A decade ago, there wasn’t much happening in Avalon over Thanksgiving weekend.

The summer crowds were long gone, and most businesses were shut for the year.

“Until about nine years ago, there wasn’t any reason to come to Avalon for Thanksgiving,” said Jacquie Ewing, the president of the 7 Mile Business Community Association, a cooperative group that promotes businesses in the resort. She also owns the Armadillo, which is open throughout the year and she calls the oldest new business in town.

It wasn’t just that businesses closed, she said. Most of the current businesses didn’t exist then.

But most years, the weather’s still nice, and the beach is just as beautiful, she said. What’s more, these days, there is a lot to do, starting with the Festival of Trees at the Whitebriar on Wednesday, Nov. 23 and running through a packed calendar on Friday and Saturday, with a 5-K run, activities in the Dune Drive shopping area and “Snowfest Saturday,” running 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Ewing said they’re trying to create a new tradition: Coming to the shore for Thanksgiving.

She said that could include second homeowners who want to get the family together, or someone interested in renting a house or room.

A big part of the draw, she said, is offering events and activities that build memories, and may pull some kids away from their phones and devices for a little while. That includes an offering Saturday called “Polar Bear Bungee Trampoline.”

“I’ve never been on that sucker, but I understand it’s really a whole lot of fun,” Ewing said.

Not just in Avalon, shopping areas and downtowns throughout Cape May County are not trying to offer pre-dawn hours, the hottest gifts, or blow-out sales for what’s become the traditional launch of the Christmas shopping season.

Instead, they’re offering fun.

And it appears to be working.

Come for the experience, and some shopping

For years, big box retail was all but non-existent in Cape May County. Now, there are several national chains present, most grouped near Route 47 and Route 9 in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township. But the biggest retail numbers for the county are the small, family-owned businesses in the downtowns and boardwalks.

According to Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s director of tourism, retail is big business in the county. She said retail sales in Cape May County top $1 billion a year, and that the county leads the state in retail sales.

“While we hear, ‘oh, you don’t have malls,’ we’re still doing well,” she said. Last year was the second year the county hit the billion-dollar mark, she said.

Most of those sales took place in the summer, when huge crowds hit the beaches and boardwalks, but as in Avalon, county towns are looking for ways to keep their businesses open longer each year. One focus is second homeowners, she said.

Offering special events and fun attractions can convince people to make use of their properties in the off-season, and maybe spend some money while they’re here. For instance, the city of Cape May has for years focused on expanding its season, with fall events and Christmas decorations throughout the town. Wieland said the Washington Street Mall has managed to extend its season past Christmas, and the town sees success with Valentine’s Day into February.

“They’ve really done a great job,” she said, adding that the success also keeps more people employed longer.

In the summer, the draw is obvious. Americans have been coming to the beach for vacation for more than a century. But as the weather cools, businesses have to get creative.

“I think what we’re offering you is the holiday experience.” Wieland said.

“People are looking for something different to do, instead of a shopping mall,” said Justin Juliano, the events coordinator for the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. A visit to a decorated downtown to see a Christmas parade or take a carriage ride makes for a memorable experience, which may mean more to some shoppers than a bargain, he said. “It gives it that Hallmark movie feel.”

Some events, like the Christmas parades in Ocean City or West Cape May or numerous tree lighting events, have been going on for decades and are deeply rooted in the communities. Others are more deliberately aimed at drawing business.

Wieland said the county has already launched a digital campaign, “Give the Gift of the Jersey Cape,” with the help of a $22,500 grant from the state Division of Travel and Tourism. The county is also looking at new drivers for tourism, including a boom in wineries and breweries, along with the ongoing draw of ecotourism and agri-tourism.

“We’re seeing an increase in fall business,” Wieland said. “Now we want to know, who is this customer, and how do we market to them?”

Small business is big business

Of the numerous events in Cape May County resorts over Thanksgiving weekend, none specifically mention “Small Business Saturday,” a marketing campaigned launched in 2010 by American Express to fit in with Black Friday and the more recent Cyber Monday. A year later, the United States Senate passed a resolution recognizing the day, and American Express estimates it meant $14.3 billion in spending at small businesses in 2014.

But the downtown events fit in perfectly with the ethos of the campaign, trying to find a way for small, community-rooted businesses to bring in a late-year spike in sales in the age of Amazon and next-day delivery. 

Wieland cited Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City, where the Holiday Extravaganza kicks off the season 4 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26, with a tree lighting and parade on Friday and ice skating, entertainment and visits with Santa on Saturday at JFK Boulevard and Pleasure Avenue. 

Again and again, it was the same story, in which businesses offer a blend of small-town nostalgia and family fun to build a market share outside of the big malls and away from the internet. 

This year, there are Small Business Saturday events planned in all 50 states, and several local businesses are listed as participating on the American Express website.