THE JERSEY SHORE -- Weather was singled out as the primary reason for last year's dismal summer season for New Jersey shore arcades, but this year it's the dark clouds hanging over the economy playing the role of spoiler.
Despite an enviable string of sunny days and record high temperatures, many arcade operators along the boardwalks say they are still struggling. They report that cashbox receipts will probably exceed last year, but a reprise of the glory days before 2008 seems highly unlikely, if not impossible.
Historically, a slight downturn in the economy often signaled good news for businesses here. Local wisdom held that, when the economy falters, budget-conscious families from the New York metropolitan area to the north and Philadelphia to the south will forgo costlier, long-distance vacations in favor of day trips and overnight stays. Prompted by convenience and affordable entertainment, they'll take the day-tripper option requiring little more than a full gas tank, beach pass and picnic basket. And they did arrive on schedule this year, sort of.
"This year the weather has been tremendous and the season seems to be very good," said Kimberle Samarelli, executive director of the New Jersey Amusement Association. "Obviously we're still in a recession, so there's still an issue of discretionary money. But families are traveling and staying close to home."
Samarelli is right, but there's a catch. The problem, as one New Jersey operator explained, isn't the foot traffic along the boardwalks, which has remained crowded and bustling throughout the summer, but the spending trend in the arcades. It seems that even the budgets for thrifty getaways are being slashed.
"The parking lot owners are the only ones making any money this year," quipped one longtime shore-based operator. "They're the ones getting most of the money out of the people's pockets."
While the idyllic weather and relatively lower gas prices did draw vacationers to shore points, they are spending significantly less compared with previous summer seasons. It seems families that once enjoyed hours in the arcades, accumulating tickets on redemption games over the course of a summer season, are cutting back -- both on what they spend in arcades during any given excursion and the number of trips taken to the shore this summer.
"The customers are there, they're coming out, but they're not spending what they would have spent last year or the year before," observed John Maurer, NJAA's Sayreville, NJ-based president, who operates arcades in Keansbur and Seaside Heights. "The wife or husband may be out of work, and the nation's unemployment rate has extended beyond what it was last year."
HARD AND SOFT STATS
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York State's unemployment rate is hovering at around 8.2%. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the rates are about 9.5% and 9.2%, respectively. Even these dismal numbers might be overly optimistic, since they don't count those who have stopped looking for work or find themselves "underemployed." Some economists say the nation's real unemployment rate is in double-digits.
The Jersey Shore is neither the Hamptons nor Martha's Vineyard. Destinations like Seaside Heights have long been viewed as blue collar, drawing many of their patrons from the industrial centers in North Jersey counties and New York City, which have been hit particularly hard by the recession.
"We're probably flat or up a little bit, compared to last year," said Marilou Halvorsen, director of marketing for Jenkinson's Boardwalk, a multi-venue complex in Point Pleasant. "We still do have three more weeks, and every day seems to be a little bit better. People are being more responsible. I certainly can't say it's [been] a terrible summer, but people are being more conservative with their spending."
Farther south, the story is very much the same. "The arcade, in general, seems to be having a difficult time keeping up with last year, which was one of the worst years I ever had," said Wayne Cimorelli, who operates the 18,500-sq.ft. Coin Castle in Seaside Heights. "You look for reasons. Last year was the rain ... this year the heat. But I think the economy has really affected discretionary income."
THE SNOOKI EFFECT
While the hit reality show "Jersey Shore" has made Seaside Heights known to an international fan base, those on the frontlines said that the MTV project has done surprisingly little to spur coin-op play. While Snooki, The Situation, Vinny, et al, have drawn attention to the shore destination, the show and its characters have had a minimal impact on amusement coin drop.
"MTV has done nothing for the arcades," said one operator. "I think Snooki and her gang have brought more people to the north end of Seaside Heights, but many of those people are just watchers and don't spend any money."
There is also some rumbling among Jersey Shore business owners that the state government itself has done little or nothing to promote the seaside resorts. They point to television ads running in the New York City and Philadelphia metropolitan markets promoting Colonial Williamsburg, regional amusement parks and other destinations to which people can drive for the day or go and spend a few nights away from home. They say a New Jersey Shore campaign has been noticeably absent.
There may be others reasons for the drop in business that has nothing to do with the economy or even Snooki. Could redemption, at least on the Jersey Shore, be on a downward slope as its novelty wears off?
"I think the redemption arcade went through a boom," recalls Coin Castle's Cimorelli. "We had items that I think we took for granted, like the Apple iPod. We went through different generations of the iPod, simultaneously. We used designer pocketbooks. Last year was a year without an item. This year we have an item called Stickable Me -- one item can make a big difference. I think it's a combination of the economy and lack of hot redemption items. However, my amusement games, by comparison, are doing better."
For many of today's resort arcade operators, declines in the cashbox are regarded as the "new norm," at least for the duration of the current recession, or so-called recovery from it.
Not unlike the summer of 2009, this season's coin is significantly off, compared with the same period in 2008. "Two thousand eight was an incredible year for most arcades. Last year we slumped and this year we're following suit," Cimorelli summed up. "It's scary."