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Careers & Consumerism
Industry carved NJ's destiny
Retirees savor time at
to Garden State
Hurley's brought luster
Marketplaces evolved into
Cherry Hill Mall started new
Farmer open dairy stores
Retail rooted downtown
Slow road to the top
Women suceed in
South Jersey's hi-tech
began in Camden
Future's workers will
WILLIAM H. SOKOLIC
Bob's Hobby Shop has weathered the changing retail trends over the last 30 years.
Since Bob and Alice Polocz opened the store in downtown Pitman in the late 1960s, they survived the emergence of Deptford and other malls, of sprawling suburban shopping plazas, and of the latest evolution, the big-draw power center.
While the Poloczes saw customers abandon their business for the mall, they were able to draw most of them back because they had a specialty store. In fact, they drew so many more customers that it forced them to move to larger quarters down the street.
The more generic merchants...those without specialties such as hobbies and art supplies...were abandoned for good, the Poloczes noted sadly.
Their experience is typical of many Mom and Pop stores in many small towns in New Jersey and throughout the country, for that matter.
The evolution of the retail industry in New Jersey dates to its pre-colonial days when businesses grew out of stagecoach stops on the dusty roads linking one town to the next. The stops developed into small towns, and even larger cities, and retail followed suit. By the beginning of the 20th century, stores lined well-demarcated downtown districts. Residents bought clothes, shoes, hardware, appliances, toys and more from downtown merchants, including department stores that served as a magnet for these districts.
Patterns changed in the early '60s as population shifts brought retail out of the cities and into the suburbs.
A new form of shopping blossomed...the mall, with Cherry Hill becoming the first enclosed shopping center east of the Mississippi River. People flocked to the indoor, weather-controlled malls or to new suburban shopping centers, both offering the advantages of a downtown without the parking and driving hassles.
From Cherry Hill, mall fever spread to Echelon, Moorestown, Deptford and, later, to Burlington Township, each anchored by two, sometimes three, major department store chains.
As a result, downtowns lost their luster...and much of their business. In the past decade and a half, the malls also took a toll on aging, rundown shopping center-laden highways such as routes 130 and 38, and to a lesser extent, Route 70.
For more than a century, the Jersey Shore offered another slice of retailing life unique to its location. While retailers on main streets in Wildwood, Ocean City and Atlantic City catered to year-round residents, those on the boardwalks tapped into the mindset of summer visitors. Salt water taffy and peanut shops, amusement rides and movie theaters, restaurants and T-shirt shops enticed...and continue to entice...crowds.
But even at the Shore, the trends throughout the rest of the state filter through. Downtowns struggle to compete with mainland shopping. Boardwalk merchants in Atlantic City and Wildwood seek new approaches to an old tradition. And a population boom in mainland communities surrounding Atlantic City has brought malls as well as the latest retail phenomenon in New Jersey and elsewhere: the power center.
Power centers...large shopping centers populated by major retail specialty stores like Best Buy, Old Navy, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot and Dick's Sporting Goods...sapped business from malls that had become so vast, they took up too much time for shopping. By contrast, the power center offered at-the-door parking, and short trips for specific items. These centers, often built in close proximity to malls, also delivered another blow to the small, individual storekeeper who didn't have the buying power to match the prices or quantity of the big boxes.
The development of the still-growing East Gate complex near the Moorestown Mall triggered a belated retail explosion throughout Burlington County, one which also traveled up the spine of the Route 541 corridor near the Burlington Center mall.
"With malls and power centers and huge stores, generations don't know what it's like growing up going downtown," said Carol Kaufman- Scarborough, associate professor of marketing at the Rutgers-Camden School of Business.
Still, downtowns have not given up the fight.
"I see New Jersey continuing to have a commitment to its downtowns, a lot of rebuilding in downtown areas, and also an increase in the number of big box retailers," said Melanie Willoughby, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association.
Small-town downtown merchants have changed their emphasis, stressing service and quaintness.
"As a small store, we're expected to offer a lot more service, and we're glad to do that. We do a lot of problem-solving and product information in a more personal level," Alice Polocz said.
Merchants associations have also banded together to offer group promotions as a way to stimulate business.
Burlington County has committed $250,000 to upgrade the streetscape in downtown Riverside, and is working with Willingboro as well to attract more shoppers. Burlington City has done a lot to redo its downtown district and waterfront. County planners are also taking a hard look at ways to bring the moribund Route 130 back to life.
Some downtowns...Haddonfield, for example...bank on a link with the past, using historic preservation as a cornerstone for business in the present and future. Other communities, from Smithville in Atlantic County to Mount Holly to Pitman, have taken a similar, albeit more muted, approach to their downtowns.
"As a historical community, Haddonfield attempts to make its shops reflect historical traditions. The buildings have a uniform sense, and merchants work together. I don't know how unique that is to New Jersey, but it does counter the feeling we are just a huge megalopolis between New York and Philadelphia," Kaufman-Scarborough said.