On Kings Highway and Haddon Avenue, a Tale of Two Cities
Some businesses thrive and others die in the boom-or-bust cycle of Haddonfield storefronts. What lessons, if any, do these extremes hold for Collingswood retailers?
To borrow a well-worn phrase, these could be the best of times and the worst of times for Haddonfield businesses.
Look no further than Kings Highway East to see why.
Here, after 31 years, Wiseley Jewelers is closing its doors. Owner Stephen Wiseley—whose son, Jason, owns the Bread Board Plus on Haddon Avenue—plans to retire in Colorado. He called the closing a "lifestyle" choice, and said he'd love to sell the storefront, but hasn't yet.
"We've had a strong year," Stephen Wiseley said. "A couple of years ago things were rough, but we're going out on top."
Even so, Wiseley is the fourth jeweler on Kings Highway to close this year (the others are Yampell's, Cabnet Goldsmiths and Biefield's).
Yampell's Jewelers had operated on Kings Highway for 83 years before financial difficulties shuttered the store in January. Sam Yampell and his assistant Sam Temple have returned to Kings Highway at Haddonfield Fine Jewelers, a new business that Yampell does not own.
Next door to Wiseley, Jan Martin's Summit Sampler home furnishings shop has expanded into an adjacent storefront that for 25 years had belonged to Houshiarnejad Fine Oriental Rugs, which went out of business in May.
Owner Mahmaud Houshiarnejad cited oppressive rents—as high as $25,000 a month for the entire space Summit Sampler occupies—as a factor in his decision to close down. Martin said her monthly rent is less than that, and that her landlord, Gerald Levin, has been "really good to us.
"He understands it's a tough economy," Martin said.
But Martin also won an $8,200 grant toward those expansion costs from Partnership for Haddonfield (PfH), the agency that oversees Haddonfield's tax-funded business improvement district, and a $19,800 PfH retention grant when the business first opened.
She's even closed her flagship location in Summit, N.J. because she's betting on the Haddonfield business climate replacing that which she says no longer exists in Union County.
"My goal here, like in Summit, is to have a lifestyle store," Martin said. "I think down here it has more energy, it's fresh. I thought we had more opportunity here."
Martin and Wisely both told Patch that times couldn't be better, but the neighboring businesses are clearly headed in opposite directions.
"Here's the difference I see," Martin said. "Jewelry is an investment. A tiny little box can cost thousands of dollars. People aren't making those decisions lightly.
"When they get to the point where they look at an item and it costs quite a bit of money, they're a little reluctant to pull the trigger," she said.
Becoming a destination location
In October, when her paint-and-take pottery shop, All Fired Up, celebrated its fifth anniversary in Collingswood (15th overall), Kim Raiguel told Patch that leaving Haddonfield helped her grow her business into a destination location.
“Collingswood courted us,” Raiguel said. “[In Haddonfield], even though their wives and kids came to paint there, the landlords there didn’t see us being a viable business. We talked about larger spots on the avenue and they wanted to hide us in a corner.
“People who only opened here and only know Collingswood…don’t even realize how good they’ve got it here,” she said.
“They don’t realize how it’s not that way other places.”
Arts Plus owner Sam Caruso, whose shop has graced the corner of Haddon and Collings for 34 years, said that, effectively, staying put has helped him stay put.
"Because we've been here so long, people like the fact that we haven't changed," Caruso said. "They trust us and they like the fact that we're still downtown, in the ghosts of these old Woolworth's buildings, and we're still viable," he said.
Retailers have been in short supply in restaurant-heavy Collingswood, and in an economy that's trying to direct more local dollars into its coffers, a lot of vendors shoot themselves in the foot marking down inventory that doesn't move, Caruso said.
"You have to be careful how you do your merchandise," Caruso said. "[Shoppers] don't buy from us because they feel sorry for us. We try to give you a fair price that we can live with.
"Put it up on the shelf and stop biting your nails that it's not going to sell," he said.
BID and buying
If the rustic, small-town cachet of the Haddonfield shopping district seems to have eroded in recent years, Caruso said, Collingswood has had "quite a rotation" too, and is still working to make a retail comeback.
In the past year, Haddon Avenue has added specialty buying shops like Dig This and The American Table, as well as new, experience-based businesses like ExtraordinaryED and Canvas Mixers, which seek to bridge the gap between retail and consumable shopping.
But a big part of rebuilding that consumer confidence has come more from the initiative shown by business owners willing to pay into the Collingswood Business Improvement District (BID) tax, and less from the local government, Caruso said.
"The borough has done things that a borough would normally do; they put the lights up, they make the town come alive," he said. "[But] that's not through borough money, that's the BID tax. Collingswood Cash is from BID money; it's from the fact that we agreed to hit ourselves [for] a certain percentage of our building.
"Everything that wanders through my mind is all done through BID, so it's all my own money," Caruso said.
Maintaining an image
Collingswood Partners, the group that administers and manages the BID funds, doesn't typically provide fit-out monies like PfH does. The only comparable monies it offered most recently, according to Mayor James Maley, were $500 facade improvement grants.
Maley said the best thing the local government can do to support a healthy economic climate is to "maintain the image of the town and tell [shoppers] you’ll be open."
"When there’s a specific need" to change things, like turning over the National Food Market, he said local governments are sometimes moved to take "drastic steps" to preserve the economic integrity of the community.
"We have always worked to try to get new businesses that we like," Maley said, adding that the only time the borough really worked to recruit a certain kind of business was "when we started actively working restaurants."
"Everybody wants more retail, but everybody does their shopping on the Internet," he said. "The new ones that work have some service orientation to them."
In the hands of a few
What might be a big difference between keeping more retailers on the avenue in Collingswood than in Haddonfield, Caruso said, is a greater diversity of property owners.
"I think it's because a lot of the dwellings there are owned by a handful of people; that's what I'm hearing" from people like former Haddonfield mayor Jack Tarditi and current mayor Tish Colombi, he said.
Maley agreed, saying that "I can think of two people who own multiple businesses on Haddon." In Collingswood, he said, many business owners are themselves materially invested in the properties they occupy.
Maley also posited that the sometimes-staggering rents in Haddonfield are a reflection of leveraged property owners trying to recoup their investments on million-dollar buildings.
"It's all a reflection of the [property] value," he said. "We rose the fastest in the county, but Haddonfield was still out there. If you buy an investment property for $1 million, you’ve got to cover that."
But Maley said the problem isn't endemic only to Haddonfield.
"That’s going on everywhere they developed...because [property value] is a big issue," he said.
In the final summation, Caruso said, taking the long view is what really pays off in the retail business.
"It's a long road through the holiday season and the doldrums of the winter, the hot summer when people are away," he said. "That clock is something that you have to pay attention to.
"We're very careful how we do things."