KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
Crowds filled the streets of downtown Greenport this summer, even on weekday afternoons. But merchants don’t think visitors did any more buying than they did last summer.
There’s not much optimism among North Fork business owners, but there’s a determination to hang in there despite a persistently tough economy. Many are finding ways to reinvent themselves by offering new products and services. Others are making price changes and redoubling their efforts at good customer service.
Still, the leaders of the business improvement districts, or BIDs, in both Riverhead and Greenport are speaking enthusiastically about their busy streets.
In Riverhead Cruise Nights, featuring classic cars and rock music, are luring more people back to downtown from the box stores on Route 58, said the downtown Riverhead BID president, Ray Pickersgill. And if they aren’t visiting downtown restaurants and stores that night, they might come back on weekends, he said.
“All BID members are very impressed with what’s going on,” said Mr. Pickersgill, co-owner of Robert James Salon on East Main Street in Riverhead.
So how’s his own business?
“It’s picked up,” he said, explaining how efforts to cross-promote businesses and community events is helping keep traffic flowing to his salon.
He estimated that 1,000 people came to downtown Riverhead last Thursday for Cruise Night, and he believes that bodes well for the future. A lot of people weren’t aware of downtown Riverhead prior to the Cruise Nights, he said. He’s hearing from restaurant owners that a lot of people are now returning on weekends.
Similar to Mr. Pickersgill, Greenport BID president Mike Acebo remarked that downtown “couldn’t be more crowded.” His business at Brewer’s Yacht Club, outside the downtown area, has been very busy with transient boat traffic this summer, though he didn’t have numbers to compare the boat traffic with last summer’s.
“People are using their boats,” he said. In the past couple of years, a lot of people hadn’t been moving their boats from the dock because of the high cost of fuel, he said.
“It’s not a home run year,” said Jerry Dicecco Jr. of Jerry and the Mermaids on East Main Street in Riverhead. “But we’re surviving,” he said.
“People are still cutting back and that’s due to the economy,” said Mr. Dicecco, who’s now offering some lighter fare at lower prices to lure people to his restaurant.
“We’re definitely trying harder,” he said, noting he’s optimistic about the future. A Hyatt Place is expected to open next to Atlantis Marine World, and next to Jerry and the Mermaid, as soon as next June. That should bring plenty more shoppers.
Meanwhile, Riverhead BID is gearing up for a country and western festival to run the night before the Riverhead Country Fair this fall, and there are even plans for an oldies night on a date not yet scheduled. The aim is to keep people flowing into downtown with the hope that it will help sustain business throughout the year, Mr. Pickersgill said.
But visitors don’t always go shopping, some business owners say.
All the boat traffic in Greenport isn’t having a large impact on what Bob Paquette sees at the downtown Arcade Department Store.
“They’re walking, but they’re not shopping,” Mr. Paquette said. Those with above average means may be spending money, but the average person is still holding tight to his wallet, he said.
In the past few years, he has talked about reinventing the store or selling it. Efforts last year to turn over specific departments to various entrepreneurs was a bust, Mr. Paquette said.
“They were more aggravation than they’re worth,” he said about most of those who wanted to operate departments at the Arcade.
The Aracade used to do a big business in work clothes, but with so many construction workers without jobs, those items aren’t selling these days.
“You don’t see a lot of hammers being swung these days,” Mr. Paquette said.
Although he has operated on weekends throughout the year, he is thinking about opening seasonally — skipping the winter months.
“You reinvent yourself,” Mr. Paquette said.
One effort at reinevention can be seen in his thoughts about turning part of the Arcade into, well, an arcade. He would scale back his retail space and offer kid-friendly arcade games in the store. But he doesn’t want to attract teens. He wants “the ice-cream licking crowd” who would enjoy games like Whack-A-Mole, he said.
“I’m putting on my thinking cap and trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “The store’s not dead; it’s hemorrhaging. I’m putting tourniquets everywhere,” he said.
Conversely, Bill Claudio loves recessions. Going back to the 1970s, he can trace an uptick in Claudio’s Restaurant business to recessionary periods when tourists came to Greenport instead of vacationing in Europe.
“They’re having a staycation” and that’s good for the restaurant, he said. “It’s been a great year.”
Outside the business improvement districts, Rothman’s Department Store in Southold is seeing more customers this summer. Owner Ron Rothman calls it the best he has had in eight years.
“As far as Southold goes, it’s becoming a place to walk around,” he said. “I think things are turning around.” His rather eclectic stock includes guitars. He’s getting more calls for big ticket instruments such as Martin and Taylor guitars, he said.
Similarly, Robert Scott at Robert’s Jewelers in Feather Hill Shopping Center is “cautiously optimistic.” But it’s taking more hours to maintain the same level of sales, he said.
“A lot of people are tired of being worried,” he said about consumers beginning to open their pocketbooks.
He, too, has diversified, doing repairs as well as selling jewelry, and to keep going, he will meet whatever his customers’ needs are.
“We kind of dance to our customers’ tunes,” he said.