There are conflicting reports on the current state of the economy and consumer spending; some show a rise in consumer confidence while others state that consumer spending is sluggish. On April 8, Daniel Laufenberg, chief economist at American Express Financial Advisors was reported as saying of the economy, "Consumers are continuing to do their part in sustaining the expansion. This is no longer just a recovery." In contrast, six days earlier Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report said, "Consumers today are not yet at peace with the notion that the economic recession is over. Layoffs are still continuing and jobs are still hard to get." Whatever the reports say, since the beginning of 2001, consumers have had to respond to some major events. A new president took office but under heavily contested election results, terrorist activity of an unprecedented scale has rocked the nation, the dot-com companies swiftly boomed and bust and after thousands of job cuts nationwide it was announced that America was officially in a recession.
To try and gauge local consumer trends, Port Washington business owners were asked how they had fared in the last six months and what, if anything, they believed was affecting their clients' spending habits. There was a surprisingly mixed response, indicating that some retailers are experiencing a good if not better than usual time at the moment but others, especially the collectible and antique stores are desperately struggling to stay open.
Toni Carter, who co-owns The Back Porch, a gift store on lower Main Street, said sales are down by 75 percent and have been since September. She believes people are currently buying essentials such as cars and dishwashers but not "frivolous" things, which unfortunately is what her gift store is all about. She said almost 80 percent of her stock is priced under $20 but people are still not buying. Men who are typically last minute shoppers normally rush in just before Christmas and impulse buy but this year they were being much more particular. Every purchase was a thought out process," said Carter. In an effort to keep the business going Carter is running a storewide sale of up to 50 percent off. She said, "We have been here for eight years and never had a storewide sale before. We will know if we can make it in the next couple of weeks."
Across the street, Amy Kraker, who owns the Village Green, a collectibles shop that specializes in kitchenware, has also experienced a downturn in business since September. "I normally have a 25 percent sale just after Christmas for three or four weeks," she said, "but this year I was just holding on by a thread and ended up having a 30 - 50 percent sale for two months." She feels a little more secure now but worries about other businesses that have not been established for as long as she has and don't have a strong client base to provide regular customers. She said, "People in Port have to realize that if they want to see their stores survive they have to come in and buy." Both Kraker and Carter experienced the phenomena of increased sales immediately after September 11 and Kraker said, "People had to get out of the house and away from CNN, they wanted to talk to people or just connect with someone." But she noticed that today people are spending less and believes they are picking out small things to treat themselves.
Florence Leniston owns Bubba Brown's Treasures, an elegant gift shop specializing in antique furniture and decorative artwork. She spent several months remodeling the shop only to find the business opening at the end of September, the worst possible time. She said that while a lot of Port residents do browse in her shop, her customers are from all over Long Island. As all the businesses on Lower Main Street, Leniston is holding out for the warmer weather to bring the tourists, who like to stroll along lower Main Street and often make impulse buys. The other bright light on the horizon for these dealers is the start of the street fairs, which begin on April 28 and run through the end of October because, she said, " People have to come to Port Washington for a reason; no-one stops here on their way to somewhere else." She is considering a banner on upper Main Street as a reminder to people that lower Main Street has a lot of unique shops and wonderful offers available.
At Painting with Flowers, proprietor Gayle Silver described a better experience saying, although sales had been slow in the six to eight weeks immediately after September 11", the holiday season had, for her at least, seen a turnaround and things were now virtually back to normal. She said her customers had come in and told her, "I want to support the economy so why not do it locally."
Emma Jean's, owned by Emy Biunno and Jeanne Pleinnes, offers a mixture of vintage clothing and rustic furniture and has been open for only one year. Biunno said that while she has not got prior year's sales to compare to she feels things are slow and the economy has not helped. On the bright side she said, "I love Port Washington, I have always wanted a store here and am enjoying being here." She added defiantly, "If it doesn't work out I will go back to doing fairs and markets, I won't give up but I would miss the shop."
Donna Davis, owner of The Cat Lady Antiques and a business owner in Port Washington for over 20 years, repeated the same bad news as the other gift and collectible stores. Sales have been down by as much as a third and while the run up to the holidays in December was better than other months, it was still more than 30 percent lower than expected. She said, "good customers who for instance would buy jewelry for their wives at Christmas and spend anything up to $1,500 were this year only spending $250." She believes people are depressed after September 11 and are waiting to see what happens with the stock market.
In contrast, Dorothey Stanchio of Sareva Nail and Skin Care feels her ladies are spending pretty much as usual. She said, "Maintenance is maintenance," indicating she doesn't think women see their beauty treatments as a luxury but more a necessity. She said the shop is always a little quiet at this time of year as many of her customers go away to Florida for the winter but expects it to become busier with the onset of warmer weather. The good news got even better with Joseph Campbell, manager at Branching Out, a florist and gift store on Main Street, who believes business is about where it should be. He said the shop has regular customers and the holidays have all been good. He said that after September 11, there were a lot of floral arrangements for funerals and memorials but also this year's Valentine's Day was busier than usual because people are showing more appreciation for each other.
Alessandro Chervasio who owns Buongustaio, the delicatessen and catering emporium on Main Street, said business in general is good and the catering side is possibly up by as much as 15 percent. He believes this is because people are more focused on family and friends. Catherine O'Neill, manager of Finn MacCool's restaurant, also said business is up on last year and echoed the sentiment that people want to get together more often. She said initially after September 11, liquor sales rocketed but things went back to normal within about two weeks as people returned to a more normal routine.
Richard and Barbara Lennon, who own Lennon's Pub, a popular watering hole for the young people who like to socialize later in the evening, said sales this year have been very good so far. Mr. Lennon believes this is not because people are drinking more but because more people are going out to socialize. Mrs. Lennon added that the current awareness of the consequences of drinking and driving encourages people to stay in Port so they can walk or get a taxi home. Mr. Lennon added that the bar business is susceptible to trends and another bar could soon be flavor of the month but hopes the current popularity of Lennon's can be sustained.
Surprisingly, Tony Mukherjee, who owns Colonial Wines and Liquors, has found sales very slow. He noted that sales of costlier items had virtually stopped and has changed his stock to focus on the medium to lower price range. He believes people have cut back due to the recession but also said his business depends on parties and thought fewer parties were being held. He is positive about the future however, saying that many of his customers who work in the city, and therefore know about these things, tell him the economy is growing.
In a very different type of business, Peter Karika, at the fitness center The Training Station said that business slowed immediately after September 11 with fewer newcomers and regulars not coming in to work out. But since the end of October things have picked up and are possibly now above average. He noted exercise is an excellent combatant for stress and depression and that today people appreciate and want to make the most of what they have, including their health.
Mary Smeja of Marjon Travel said her industry suffered a "very big setback" after September 11 when everyone cancelled their trips and many travel businesses floundered due to the overwhelming number of refunds. But in her case, things have turned around since the New Year, and each day business is getting better. She says her aggressive advertising brings in a lot of new clients from all over the Island and believes the discount she offers on all her package holidays is a good incentive for people to book through her agency. Cruises are currently in great demand, especially those that leave from New York and don't require people to fly, with Bermuda and the Bahamas the most popular destinations. However, she said, trips to the Middle East and Israel have suffered a major downturn for very obvious reasons.
It is good to know the residents of Port Washington are continuing to shop locally and appear, even in these difficult times, to be prospering. It is also good to see Port Washington still has the eclectic mix of "mom and pop" shops that makes our town special and the envy of many out-of-towners. Even so, some businesses are struggling to stay open and there is a chance they will close and be lost forever. So, if you are searching for a gift for that special person in your life or even just want to treat yourself, consider the unique shops in Port Washington that offer distinctive merchandise and keep following former New York Mayor Giuliani's directive to "Spend, Spend, Spend."