Local businesses say holiday sales on par with 2022 ‣ Ocean City Sentinel

TOP TOWN - Jessica Englehart has heard about the warning signs and challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic this holiday season, especially with concerns about inflation and a possible recession.

So far, the Marmora-based vice-president of LEH Soap and some other merchants in the area said they have not had too many of these concerns because they have found sales, if not brisk, certainly comparable and on par with their usual shopping seasons.

“We were very lucky to still get good crowds,” Englehart told the Sentinel. “If anything, they’re not making the big purchases they’ve done in the past but our customers still come.”

According to survey data from MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 85 percent of small business owners interviewed said they were concerned about inflation at the end of the year, and a third said it was their top concern as pandemic fears faded.

Englehart said LEH Soap, which has locations in Ocean City, Smithville and Rehoboth Beach, Del. , she said she’s seen strong sales in smaller items, like gift bags, which have been a pleasant surprise so far this year.

Business has been doing well along the boardwalk and continues to recover from the pandemic and current challenges from the economy, said Bob Hartley, of Playland Amusements in Ocean City.

“At the moment, things are going pretty smoothly,” Hartley said. “For us this time of year it’s really hard to say until the end of the season. We have flash sales and we have online sales. You have rainy days where sales are terrible and then on warm weekend days everyone comes here and you have a boom and everything balances out.” .

“Right now, I don’t think the economy is hurting us. People are still coming down to Ocean City and we’re offering a great product both as a city and as a business. I think 2023 looks good too.”

Hartley said, though, that he’s been watching how local and national economies continue to develop after the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In times of inflation, one of the first things to go is vacation,” Hartley said. “If people don’t come to Ocean City because prices are going up or down, you have to feed the family and heat your house.”

He admitted that the closures from 2020 were “really hurting” Playland, as people were discouraged from traveling and if they did, they should avoid anything resembling large crowds - exactly what is the lifeblood of places like Playland.

“We could go back to that but we’re optimistic we won’t,” said Hartley. “Vacations are not a necessity. People have a lot of other things to worry about. We have to watch the economy. We haven’t changed the rates so we can keep people coming back.”

However, COVID-19 has not gone away. According to some of the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weekly trends of new cases and deaths related to the disease were up in December compared to recent months.

More than 458,000 COVID-19s were recorded nationwide for the week ending Dec. 7, most of them the more contagious but less severe Omicron BA.5.

By comparison, that’s outside of a peak of 5.6 million infections in one week in January this year and 843,000 weekly infections at the same time last year.

“COVID is still going on but most people seem comfortable,” Hartley said. “You still see people wearing masks and that’s totally fine. Everyone has a different set of health conditions, and they have to do what they have to do.

“It doesn’t really affect our operation but 2022 is much more normal than it has been in the past. Looking ahead, we think we’re going to have a strong 2023.”

For Karen Jones, who runs The Hub in Somers Point with her mother, Carol Dodd, she’s more worried about the weather - because it’s been so good.

“It’s very warm,” Jones said with a laugh. “We usually take the workers out. When it’s cold, they want to go in and get a jacket. All of a sudden, their shoes are leaking and wet and they need new ones. For us, that’s what brings them the most.”

“Usually when it’s cold, windy, wet or snowy, that’s when we do our best. In the worst weather, we do better.”

Hub provides workwear and accessories. Jones said The Hub’s ability to survive the COVID-19 lockdowns two years ago is now bearing fruit.

“When COVID-19 hit, a lot of other stores went broke,” Jones said. “So now, all of their clients come to us. We’re fine.”

Jones said The Hub has benefited from moving its store to a busier location in Somers Point Plaza.

“We recently moved on August 1st down where Target is, but we’re doing a good job,” Jones said. “We’re at the other end of the square. There’s more foot traffic and there’s more customers coming in.”

At Second Chance Boutique in Ocean City, a thrift store on Asbury Avenue, Pastor Butch Norton said the nature of the business and the customers shield him from the ups and downs that come with holiday shopping and the pandemic.

“Our sales are not affected by holidays like many stores,” Norton said. We don’t see much volatility. Almost everything we have is used up, so even by Christmas, even if people who don’t have much have a choice.

“They’re trying to figure out a way to get something new for their kids or someone else in the family. So, we don’t see much of a Christmas shopping drive.”

One of the things that has remained consistent over the years, Norton said, is the interest in women’s clothing and furniture. Those, he said, have always proved popular with customers at Second Chance, no matter the season.

“It’s no surprise, but women’s clothing is a huge seller,” Norton said. “A lot of people are looking to grow a little dollar, so this is the weekend, so clothes, especially women’s clothing, are the number one seller. Furniture is the second best seller, which isn’t a surprise to us. Here, people can save a lot of money on one item”.

Local businesses have shown their resilience regardless of the economy and the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

Written by Clyde Hughes/ Special for the guard