THE JERSEY SHORE -- The summer of 2011 on the Jersey Shore could have been much worse, under the circumstances. Last year saw a continuing deterioration of cashbox receipts as boardwalk arcades struggled in the weak U.S. economy. With the unemployment rate rising and consumers tightening their belts, not even cooperating weather could remedy the situation during the summer of 2010. For FEC owners up and down the shore, the halcyon days of 2008 seem a distant, happy memory.
This year, arcade operators told VENDING TIMES, the situation seems to have stabilized, and in some cases, improved. While the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high, and consumers remain wary of expenditures, tourists did go to the shore. Unfortunately, some bad luck went, too.
"It was a good season considering, all we had to deal with -- like an earthquake, hurricane and the economy," said Kimberle Samarelli, executive director of the New Jersey Amusement Association. "But we seem to have weathered it all. What I'm hearing is that it was comparable to last year; so, all things considered, it was a good year."
According to Samarelli, the recession is still a decisive factor, but families are beginning to get out and about again. While those families may not be staying for a week, they are managing three or four days "down the shore." The blue-collar playgrounds of south Jersey are still a bargain compared to more extravagant vacation spots or pricy theme parks. And people seem to be coming from greater distances in search of a reasonably priced vacation.
GET THE HELL OFF THE BEACH!
It would have been better, of course, had Hurricane Irene not swept through during one of the summer's high-value weekends in late August. "Get the hell off the beach!" Gov. Chris Christie demanded as the storm approached the Garden State. The blunt and very New Jersey-esque soundbite from the plainspoken governor took on a life of its own, playing nationwide on news stations. Residents and tourists listened and complied. According to Christie, more than one million people evacuated the area within 24 hours, turning the shoreline into a string of soggy ghost towns as Irene pummeled the region with high winds and rain on its way north.
PHOTO: A week after telling people -- in not so very subtle terms -- to leave the shore as Hurricane Irene swirled up the coast, New Jersey Gov. Christie encouraged people to return to the boardwalk and open their wallets for Labor Day weekend.
However, the shore communities sustained minimal damage, and Gov. Christie was out on the boardwalks a few days later, good-naturedly commanding visitors to "Get the hell on the beach!" That, too, seemed to work, as tourists flocked back to the resorts to fill beaches and arcades during the last few days of summer.
NJAA president John Maurer, who operates family entertainment centers in Keansburg and Seaside Heights, is cautiously optimistic about the season. "I heard there were 30-some days of 90° heat last year; this year the number was only in the teens, which means there were less people out," he explained. While there seemed to be fewer people on the boardwalk with less money to spend, compared to two or three years ago, Maurer reported that machine collections this year were as good as, if not better than, the year before.
Maurer also pointed to the fact that more coupons for free games or discounts were redeemed this year than in recent ones, suggesting a trend toward bargain hunting.
THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD
"It was a good summer for me," said Steven Whalen of Lucky Leo's, a landmark arcade on the Seaside Heights boardwalk for decades. "I think Seaside set records for parking and beaches; it seemed like our customers could put their 3.2 kids in the car and hop down to the shore."
Whalen attributes a good portion of his successful summer results to The Wizard of Oz, a new coin pusher from Elaut USA.
PHOTO: Steve Whalen of Lucky Leo's (Seaside Heights, NJ) shows off his top-earning game. The Wizard of Oz pusher, sold by Elaut USA (Lakewood, NJ), is fully automatic and hosts up to six players. It features a new style of play for a pusher in which patrons receive credits (tokens) by inserting payment and then align and launch their tokens using joysticks and buttons. When a button is continuously pressed, rapid-fire results. In addition to tokens, collectible WOZ character cards could be pushed off the playfield.
"I bought my first [Wizard] on June 24 and by mid-August I had four of them -- they were that strong," Whalen told VT. "My redemption business has gone down for the past four or five years, but the Wizard of Oz pusher brought it back to the single strongest part of my arcade."
Whalen also saw renewed interest in his plush cranes, which previously were in decline as customers preferred games offering pricier prizes.
"I think, in general, the cranes did pretty good," Whalen reported; "I see we're getting away from the high-end electronics. This was a great year for plush -- the customers are winning more frequently. It was nice to see us get back to that genre of prizes." Plush items themed to Angry Birds, Smurfs and Despicable Me were the most desired prizes this year, he added.
Lindsey Young, marketing manager of Morey's Piers in Wildwood, reported a very positive summer. Morey's sprawling 18-acre amusement destination includes three amusement piers, two beachfront waterparks and six hotels. While the final tally is not yet in, she expects this year's performance to be comparable with last year's.
"It was a lot of fun and successful," Young said. "It seemed to be a wonderful summer."
According to Brian Sharpe, managing partner of Wildwood's Gateway 26, the summer of 2011 turned out better than expected. "If it weren't for the hurricane, it would have been an excellent season," he said. "We have eight key weekends, and Irene forced us to shut down on one. If you didn't have that hurricane it would have been a very good season. Up to that point we were in good spirits. So it became a flat season rather than an up season."
Even an equivocal success in a flat season success does not come easy, Sharpe said; it takes more than simply opening the doors to attract customers. "We spent over $1 million refurbishing our building and buying equipment," he said. "We continued to spend on improvements when the other stores didn't. We increased the number of vendors from whom we buy from 602 to 654."
Whether the apparent summer stabilization at one of the nation's premier arcade destinations signals a healing economy, or just points to a lower panic level among consumers, remains to be seen. However, operators along the Jersey Shore are nearly unanimous in their opinion that new coin-op equipment and other attractions played an integral role in luring patrons into arcades.