Many South Jersey shore business owners were sweating the first half of the summer, and it had little to do with the recent heat wave.
Funky weather - with June one of the wettest on record for the region - brought a slow start to a summer that is so critical to the survival of many shore businesses.
Throw in a still uncertain economy and lingering misconceptions about Hurricane Sandy-related damage in Cape May and Atlantic counties, and the summer's start was more of a wet whimper than a full-blown roar.
"It's a different summer," said Jim Lombardo, a partner at Green's Bike Rental in Wildwood Crest, a 50-year-old business where 200 bicycles sit ready for Boardwalk peddling. Lombardo estimates revenues are down 15 percent from last year.
"You have to put a combination of everything - the weather, the economy, the people in North Jersey that maybe don't know it's OK down here, or the ones who can't afford to come down because of what happened up there," he said.
The next month will be crucial for many local shops and eateries in similar positions, as they seek to recover dollars lost from unsold ice-cream cones and still-on-the-rack T-shirts from the first half of summer.
For shore merchants, there is no simple answer to the question, "How's business this summer?"
Some report flat or slightly up business compared to last year, others say business has suffered a little, or tremendously. Explanations can include variations of weather, unusually cold ocean water (until last week), economic impacts, and – the great unknown - what damage did Hurricane Sandy really do to the shore's image.
"We have people calling up and asking if our town had gotten the roller coaster out of the ocean yet," said Ocean City businessman Larry Friedel, referring to the iconic storm image from Seaside Heights - more than an hour's drive north.
Friedel, who with his wife owns four 7th Street Surf Shop locations in Ocean City, as well as a Boardwalk arcade and a coffee shop, said chilly water temperatures drove many surfers away, and meant his typically booked surfing lessons had empty spaces.
Water temperatures in the 50s have since warmed, bringing more people out, and surf classes are again being booked solid, he said.
"In a nutshell it was a slow start, sometimes a scary slow start," he said.
"In small business every year you lay it on the line and risk everything. Sometimes with the economy or a natural event, things are out of your control," he said.
Brigantine resident Kevin Ta opened his exotic ice cream business Cool Cones in Brigantine in September, a year-round business in which he relied on selling plenty of his nearly 40 flavors during the hottest months.
"The numbers are not as good as I predicted," he said. "In summer, I was hoping for a whole lot of profit to cover my losses for the wintertime, but I don't think it's happening," he said.
Ta said July figures are looking much better than June.
Throughout the year, traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway has been lighter than last year.
At the Egg Harbor Toll Plaza-a gauge of South Jersey shore traffic-transactions were down almost 5 percent from January through June, according to South Jersey Transportation Authority figures. In June alone, there were about 1.7 million vehicles passing through, a 6 percent decline-about 100,000 fewer vehicles-from last year.
Casino buses and passengers to Atlantic City were each down nearly 19 percent in June, and rail service passengers dropped 1 percent, according to SJTA figures.
In Cape May County, Tourism Director Diane Wieland is preparing to send out a mid-summer survey to businesses in late July and early August to gauge the first half of the summer season.
Last year, tourism was a $5.2 billion industry in Cape May County, based on spending on lodging, food and beverage, entertainment, retail and transportation, up nearly 4 percent from 2011, she said.
So far this year, "Some places are doing well, some are not," she said.
In Atlantic City, two family-owned, side-by-side retail shops on the Boardwalk - Oceanside Tees & Souvenirs and Beachside Fashions-are also struggling.
Business has been off 70 percent, said Beachside owner and Atlantic City resident Sajida Chaudhry. She hopes to get her business's rent reduced to help her stay in business, she said.
Oceanside has been in business for eight years. She opened Beachside last year amid signs the economy was turning around. The business had no damage from Hurricane Sandy, but perceptions of the hurricane's damage to the shore may have carried over, she said.
In North Wildwood, owner Jack McCartney's North Wildwood Shirt Shop said his is in the middle of the worst retail summer he's had, with business down 70 percent.
"The town is packed, but they're not spending," said McCartney, of North Cape May.
But nearby in North Wildwood, Celeste DeAngelis, owner of DeAngelis Deli & Grill, said the summer has been decent, with sales about the same as last year.
In Ventnor, Karen Santoro said the summer has shaped up rather nicely, slightly ahead of last year at Ship Shop, a bait and tackle shop she and her husband own alongside their Ventnor Heights Auto & Marine.
"We had a decent first half. I don't really have any expectations of the second half," she said, after selling two fishing rods to a family. "It's just wait and see what's going to happen."
Jamie Ford owns Barefoot Trading Company in Ocean City and Ready's Coffee Shop & Restaurant.
"For July, I'm about flat, which considering where June was, I'll take," he said.
Ford said this season has lacked "flow."
"Usually you get into a bit of a groove and you're off and running. Not just in terms of dollars of cents, but the psyche of the merchants," he said.
"Sometimes it'll be really crowded and packed and then other nights you'd expect it to be a mob scene it doesn't really materialize and you'll analyze it to death. That's the part that gets you… you'll start to overthink it quite frankly, but a lot of it is out of your control," he said.
John Johnson, owner of All About Bikes & Wheels in Brigantine, said his business is off 35 percent this season, which he attributes to declines in weekly home rentals. A rainy June didn't help, either.
Despite the heart of the season fast approaching, Johnson said June declines mean he will be down for the year compared to last year.
"It can't change now after losing that much ground in June," he said.
In Stone Harbor, Seashore Ace hardware store owner Jim Fisher said weather has always been a key to sales at the seashore - more so than gasoline prices or the economy.
This was a lesson he picked up from his father, who opened the business as an appliance store in 1946.
"My father was a smart business man before me. He always said give me good weather, it doesn't matter what the economy would be," he said. "And hopefully with this weather now, we'll catch back some of what we lost."
Contact Brian Ianieri:
June 2013 comparison to June 2012
June 2013 June 2012 Change
Atlantic City Expressway, Egg Harbor Toll Plaza, total transactions (rounded)
1.67 million 1.77 million -6 percent
Atlantic City International Airport (total passengers)
107,009 133,613 -20 percent
Casino buses passengers to Atlantic City
214,433 263,224 -19 percent
Total Atlantic City rail passengers
120,828 122,332 -1 percent
Source: South Jersey Transportation Authority