By Donald Wittkowski
They don’t have free horse and carriage rides at the mall.
Nor do they offer personalized service.
And the store owner? Well, at the mall, it’s probably a big corporation. But in a small town like Ocean City, it’s probably your friend or neighbor.
In the fierce competition for customers during the holiday shopping season, the stores in Ocean City’s downtown business district are pointing to those differences to draw distinctions between them and the big-box retailers.
So amid the clip-clop, clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages along Asbury Avenue, shoppers descended on downtown Ocean City to take advantage of the discounts and other perks offered at local stores during Small Business Saturday.
Shop owners mixed in some aggressive price-cutting with some old-fashioned personal touches – such as giving out complimentary cups of hot chocolate to their customers – to attract a steady flow of shoppers.
“It’s just a homier feel here. It’s not so corporate,” Jamie Keenan, manager of the 7th Street Surf Shop on Asbury Avenue, said of the atmosphere downtown. “It’s a small-town feel. It’s very family-oriented.”
Small Business Saturday, a nationwide promotion started by American Express in 2010, encourages consumers to shop at local stores the day after Black Friday. Black Friday has become symbolic with the rush to the mall, so Small Business Saturday is a push for shoppers to spend their money locally.
“It is a very important event. It really does make people understand that shopping locally makes a big difference,” said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Not to be outdone by the malls, Ocean City has staged a number of special events this holiday season to draw visitors downtown. On Friday night, thousands of spectators lined the sidewalks for a lavish tree-lighting ceremony and an appearance by Santa Claus during the annual Christmas in the Downtown event.
For Small Business Saturday, the Chamber of Commerce partnered with American Express and 110 local establishments to promote the business community. The chamber also made heavy use of social media to attract shoppers, Gillian noted.
“We are getting the word out to shop local,” she said. “It really does help the region.”
Jacki Hagmayer and her brother, Brad Hagmayer, filled up three shopping bags with Christmas gifts purchased at stores on Asbury Avenue.
One shopper, Jacki Hagmayer, was carrying three bags filled with Christmas gifts she had purchased from stores on Asbury Avenue. Hagmayer, a resident of Harrisburg, Pa., who has a summer home in Ocean City, said she does some of her holiday shopping every year during Small Business Saturday.
“There’s a lot of variety here and everything in between,” she said. “You have bakeries, a (Hoy’s) 5 & 10, boutiques and coffee shops.”
Hagmayer’s family had been part of Ocean City’s business community years ago. Her father, William Hagmayer, was the owner of the old Mary Hoyer shop at Seventh Street and the Boardwalk, she noted.
Meanwhile, a number of downtown businesses lured shoppers inside on Saturday by placing signs on the sidewalks and in their windows announcing big discounts. Making Waves, a clothing and accessories boutique on Asbury Avenue, draped a big “50% Off” sign in its storefront.
Danielle St. Clair, the manager of Making Waves, waits on a steady stream of customers.
“We were crazy busy in here yesterday and crazy busy today,” Danielle St. Clair, the manager of Making Waves, said amid a store crowded with customers.
Making Waves gave its shoppers complimentary cups of hot chocolate to thank them for their business. St. Clair explained that the hot chocolate was an example of the personalized attention that small stores can offer to customers.
“Just about every store here is a smaller, family-owned business instead of being owned by the big corporations. That helps to bring more and more people here to Ocean City,” St. Clair said.
Ocean City’s downtown area has been dressed up for the holidays with green garland and big, red bows. Decorations hang high above Asbury Avenue and are draped on the Victorian-style lamp posts lining the sidewalks.
Adding to the festive mood Saturday were the free horse and carriage rides along Asbury Avenue. Chelsea Lingo, 9, and her little sister, Lauren, were among those waiting in a long line outside City Hall to catch a carriage ride
“We’ve always wanted to do it,” Chelsea said, smiling.
Jen Lingo, the mother of Chelsea and Lauren, told her daughters that the carriage ride would make them feel like Disney princesses. Lingo, of Skippack, Pa., was accompanied by her sister-in-law, Mary Beth Quinlan, who lives in Ocean City.
“This is why we’re here and not at the mall. That’s why we come to Ocean City,” Quinlan said of the family-friendly ambiance.
Lauren and sister Chelsea, in blue jacket, waited for a carriage ride with their mother, Jen Lingo, top right, and Lingo’s sister-in-law, Mary Beth Quinlan of Ocean City.