RED BANK — Downtown retailers are feeling a sense of hope.
Like businesses just about everywhere for the last few years, local merchants have had a tough time the past few years, with sliding consumer confidence in an economy that appeared to be limping along at best.
But now that the all important holiday shopping season is past, some retailers are breathing a sigh of relief and offering some hopeful observations about the coming year.
“We are moving in the right direction,” observed Patti Siciliano, owner of Funk & Standard variety store, 40 Broad Street. “The pendulum is swinging in the right direction.”
December was pretty good for her business, after a couple of lackluster years. And she established a juice bar, which added another whole dimension for customers, she explained.
“You have good times and bad times. That’s just how life is,” she explained. But “If you can sustain through the tough times,” that’s the key to surviving, she stressed.
“I’m definitely hopeful,” she said, and then added, “I was never not hopeful.”
“Survival is success in this economy,” Siciliano stressed.
“People seem to be less apprehensive,” and are spending some money, was Chuck Hendrickson’s take on the local economy. Hendrickson owns Firehouse Specialty Shop, 24 Broad, where he does silk screening, embroidery and engraving work, along with a small retail operation, selling printed tee shirts and other novelty items. “Last year was a disaster,” he said, citing poor sales and difficult weather following Christmas of 2010.
The overall appearance of the town appears to be picking up, as well, Hendrickson observed of the shopping district. “I think the businesses are coming back in now,” after a couple of years in which there were a disturbing number of shuttered shops that stayed vacant for a while, he said.
And while there are still a number of empty stores, Nancy Adams, executive director of Red Bank RiverCenter, the borough’s special improvement district, said this week, “What appears to be more vacancies are actually a lot of signed leases,” with new businesses preparing their locations for opening, which includes new eateries, entertainment spots and some traditional retail. Last year saw a number of new openings, expansions and relocations of existing businesses, Adams said.
“The outlook is always a little tough to guess,” she acknowledged, but stressed the borough’s business district has fared better than some other locations during the recession, and this year there was a considerable increase in sales of Red Bank gift cards. RiverCenter sold $15,000 worth in December alone.
“I really think Red Bank has all the things that any downtown could ask for, with regard to the ability to bounce back,” she said. “And I think that’s proven out.”
“It’s turning around,” said Sharon Fisler, manager for Wayne’s Market, 21 West Front Street. Wayne’s “had a very good Christmas,” and she is pleased to see that businesses now coming into town are not so much “nail salons and Italian restaurants,” which had proliferated over the years, but other types as well, which is important to maintain the town’s vitality, Fisler said. “You need that diversity..
“There is activity in town,” acknowledged a staff member at If The Shoe Fits (the former Miller’s shoe store), 18 Broad Street. He asked that his name not be used.
After 40 years working in the business, he thinks there is a turnaround taking place.
Though the business has weathered previous recessions, “I think it was more dramatic this time,” he said.
He, too, would like to see more diversity in the business district. “We need a better mix.” And he struck a nostalgic chord, wishing Prown’s variety store were still operating on Broad Street. “We need mom and pop stores,” he said. “You need a reason to come to Red Bank.”
“The mom and pop stores aren’t coming back,” Hendrickson had offered without having heard the shoe salesman’s observations, believing those days are over and the town has to move forward. “That’s why restaurants and specialty stores have to carry it.”
One area of consensus, on the other hand, is the continued belief on the part of business owners that the borough must increase the number of parking spaces and curtail what they say is aggressive enforcement, which hurts retail operations. “It’s bad for business when your customer looks at their watch and says ‘I have to pay the meter,” argued Cindy Ciullo, owner of Backward Glances boutique, 43 Broad. “That customer isn’t coming back.”
“It’s too aggressive,” Fisler stressed, referring to parking enforcement. “”I’m not the only one who says it.” But she does something about it, by actually feeding the meters for customers and sometimes others who park curbside in front of her location.
Stephen Catania opened his business, The Cheese Cave, at 14 Monmouth Street last February.
“So, I don’t have any benchmarks,” to measure the business progress, he acknowledged.
But he does say that “each weekend I see new people,” and as “a small town with independent shops that provide foot traffic,” Red Bank is good for his business. “For me it’s not just about the cheese but having a relationship with the shop owner,” establishing that connection for the customers.
“People say we’ve definitely bottomed out and are moving in the right direction,” Catania said. “People are always looking for a promise of hope,” he said. “We want to believe it’ll be better.”