OCEAN CITY — Paul Cunningham, owner of the bath shop and gift store P. Francis, does not want to talk about Hurricane Sandy.
He and other merchants have had to revisit the topic with inquiring customers daily since the Oct. 29 storm made landfall a few miles north, inundating his Asbury Avenue shop along with rest of the downtown. The city’s businesses recovered in a matter of months, but customers’ concerns have continued day after day for the past year.
While he appreciates everyone’s concern, Cunningham said he is focused on the future of the avenue.
“I think people realize even more now how important Asbury Avenue is to them because they almost lost it. They’ve made a more conscious effort to support the downtown,” he said.
Cunningham is not alone. Shortly after the downtown reopened for business, merchants started looking forward to better times, said Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism.
“People got that image in their heads of the roller coaster in the ocean (in Seaside Heights), and they ask, ‘How do you recover from that?’” Wieland said. “But people here are definitely wanting to move on. We changed all of our marketing to avoid discussion of the hurricane.”
Cunningham opened his store in 2006 with a focus on candles and bath-and-body supplies. He later expanded his stock to include gifts such as fine tableware.
“After shopping on Asbury, I saw the need for an upscale gift shop that catered to residents as well as visitors,” he said. “The original focus would be candles and bath-and-body products. But as I saw the need and got requests, I found there was a need for more heirloom-quality gifts.”
From the start, Cunningham wrapped each purchase in his store’s specially designed black-and-gold gift bags. It’s the same marketing technique that Tiffany & Co. employs with its baby-blue packaging.
“Customers began to recognize the black-and-gold bags that are my signature bags. It’s almost as if when they see that packaging, they know they’re going to like it,” he said.
P. Francis has become a go-to destination for gifts for weddings, bridal showers and housewarming parties. Cunningham, of Ocean City, came from a retail background. He was a manager in a department store and worked as a cosmetics buyer for Belk in South Carolina.
He decided to open a business in Ocean City after his mother relocated to the island from South Carolina. They spent summer vacations here when he was growing up in New Jersey, he said.
“What I wanted to do was bring the best brands in the industry to Ocean City,” he said.
P. Francis carries brands such as Mariposa, which offers gifts for entertaining such as its ornately sculpted aluminum serving trays, picture frames and candlesticks.
The store also offers designer tableware by Michael Aram.
Cunningham said he takes note of what he likes in other stores when he travels and attends trade conventions to choose the latest products and get tips on the best way to market them.
“I go to the Atlanta Gift Mart in January for inspiration. It’s the first and largest show of the year,” he said. “You get merchandising ideas about how best to display the pieces.”
Like other Asbury Avenue stores, P. Francis is open year-round. Cunningham said the store gets busy around Easter and stays that way through New Year’s.
Cunningham said P. Francis tries to create a welcoming environment for customers through inviting displays and consistent customer service.
“With our busy world of technology and so many outside influences coming at us at the speed of light, it’s nice to take a break and just escape from all that for a while,” he said.
Cunningham is president of Main Street Ocean City. He said the downtown offers a healthy mix of stores that makes it an attractive place to shop. This fall, a Starbucks will join the avenue.
“A few chain stores validate your commercial district. People seek out those names, so it brings new people to the area,” he said.
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