Richard Perniciaro saw it all coming. The outlet shopping and high-end Pier Shops in Atlantic City. The build-up of retail around the Hamilton Mall. The seemingly endless parade of strip malls popping up in Cumberland County.
Southern New Jersey is in the midst of a retail boom. While some stores may be struggling, for many, business has never been better.
But has the region reached its shopping saturation point? What can visitors and residents expect to see in the decades to come? Another mall? An even bigger outlet district?
Perniciaro, the director of Atlantic Cape Community College's Center for Regional and Business Research, says there can be too much of a good thing. In fact, the boom, he says, may very well go bust.
"The past 20 years were easy," Perniciaro says. "It's the next 20 that's hard."
The future of retail in the region is going to depend on one thing, Perniciaro says: jobs. What happens in the Atlantic City casino scene will have region-wide effects on who is moving in - and moving out.
"The next 20 years might be a different story," Perniciaro says of the retail picture. "It really depends on what happens with the casino industry. That will affect the families that are coming in with kids, and everything that comes with that - the car dealers, the furniture stores, the Home Depots."
"I don't think you can beat the last 20 years," Perniciaro says. "The kinds of stores that we have now … it really says that this is a diverse area. The growth that we've had - I don't think we can match it."
Area retail's golden era
There was a time - and it wasn't that long ago - when retail offerings in southern New Jersey left, well, more to be desired.
The Black Horse Pike was little more than a desolate strip of road, dotted by ramshackle houses, the occasional motel and restaurant and shuttered gas stations. Atlantic City's casinos were bustling - but outside their doors, there was no real shopping destination beckoning visitors to spend money. Mainland attractions such as Historic Smithville and the Village Greene were under new ownership, but still finding their footing.
Today, it is a very different picture. As the population has grown and key investments have been made, strong retail offerings in southern New Jersey are everywhere. Atlantic City now boasts a sprawling and eye-catching outlet district in The Walk, and offers a high-end, classy designer shopping experience with The Pier Shops at Caesars.
The area surrounding the Hamilton Mall along the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing has ballooned into a major shopping area, with big-box anchor stores such as WalMart, Target and Best Buy clamoring for space in the multitude of shopping centers. And while the economy has soured in recent months, the future of retail in this region, business owners say, looks better than ever.
"Just the past five years have been amazing," says Phyllis Lacca, president of Masterpiece Advertising, a marketing and public relations firm based in Atlantic City. "That's been the significant change here: the restaurants and the shopping. It's no longer just casinos. And it makes sense, because people need things to do. They come to this area and ask, 'Where can I eat, and where can I shop?'"
Growth will continue
So what has helped to spur the growth? Mark Soifer, public relations manager for Ocean City, says the key was getting local businesses to work together. In Ocean City, he says, the result has meant a stronger retail presence on the boardwalk and a now-thriving shopping and arts district along Asbury Avenue.
"Now, there is the chamber of commerce, there's the boardwalk merchants, the retail merchants - they're all involved," Soifer says. "Which really makes things a lot better."
For Atlantic City, the recipe for retail success needed one more ingredient - giving the people the shopping experience they had been wanting for years.
"The Walk has been successful largely in part because it offers people what they want, which is a great brand at a great value," says Kim Butler, The Walk's general manager. "That is the key. The other thing is it's an attractive outdoor shopping area. From a visitor standpoint, it connects the boardwalk to the visitor center. It's easy to negotiate, easy to find and there's a lot of great storefronts to look at."
The Walk has been so successful there are currently plans to expand. Development of "phase 3" is now under way, which will add an additional 45,000 square feet of retail space to the right of the Atlantic City Expressway, as well as a parking garage funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
"So now, as people come in, on their right-hand side, they'll see all these great brands," Butler says. "We hope to have merchants open by the 2010 holiday season."
At the helm of the Metropolitan Business & Citizens Association for 20 years, Gary Hill has seen firsthand the retail growth in the region - and thinks it is just getting started. The MBCA is a nonprofit group representing more than 350 local businesses in the Atlantic City area.
"I think it's great when you have a convention, and you have something to do outside of the convention," Hill says. "I think something like The Walk has really made an immense amount of difference here in Atlantic City."
Adding luxury offerings to the mix - like the high-end brands at The Pier Shops at Caesars - give shoppers the variety they're looking for, Hill says.
"There's so much there (at The Pier), that it's kind of hard for it to get its own flavor," Hill says. "But what's nice about it is you have all different levels of retail - very well known, national things like Apple, Tiffany's."
Leading into Atlantic City, Hamilton Mall, which has 120 local and national tenants in addition to the major department stores, has also continued to work on its image in order to grow its retail base.
The mall has expanded its food court, added lounge areas complete with wide-screen TVs, a custom-built carousel and a play area.
"The mall has been a great shopping destination for residents of Atlantic and Cape May counties since 1987," says Lin Houser, marketing manager for Hamilton Mall. "The mall is always looking for new retail concepts and is exploring expansion possibilities that would include more dining and entertainment options for shoppers."
But Hill wants to see more come to the region, beyond the casinos and outlets to places such as the Boardwalk and surrounding vacant lots.
"I think a lot of the stores on the Boardwalk struggle with an image - for good or bad," Hill says. "Some of it is cultural, some of it is economic. But we need to upgrade and update. The casinos have their own niche - their own flavor and theme - and that's understandable. But the only thing that will help our area continue to thrive is we must clean up the city and get the tax structure under control. It would be great to see shopping in the Bader Field area."
A "dream situation," Hill says, would be an Atlantic City in 20 years that has numerous new hotels, more restaurants and retail that includes everything from the expanded outlet shopping to supermarkets and card shops.
"I think the dream would be to have all those components that make a community," Hill said. "And then put them all together. It can be culturally diverse. It can work."