If you dread battling through crowds of irate and stressed-out shoppers at holiday time, ditch the mall and head downtown. We spoke to town officials throughout the state, who offered the following tips to make your downtown shopping experience smooth and worry-free.
If you’re visiting for the first time, check the town’s website before you go, says Haddonfield retail coordinator Lisa Hurd. Directions, store directories, hours, and seasonal events are usually listed on a site maintained by the town or by the local chamber of commerce. Virtually every downtown offers some free parking. But if your favorite downtown has parking regulations designed by Scrooge, you can save some quarters if you shop on the weekends and after 7 pm, when most metering ends. Contrary to what many people think, local shops do not close at dusk, especially as it gets closer to the holidays. “Store owners are flexible with their hours and cater to the customer,” says Anthony Melchionna, vice chairman of Summit Downtown Inc. Towns generally designate one night when stores stay open late.
During the holidays, many towns offer special events for kids. These include a puppet show and dance revue on Sundays in Haddonfield, and ornament making at Van Neste Memorial Park (ck) in Ridgewood on December 2. Don’t miss the annual tree lighting, an event that almost every town celebrates, usually in the first or second weekend of December. “It becomes a magical little place,” says Carol Beder, director of special events at the Clinton Guild, which organizes Clinton’s tree lighting, held this year on November 24. “The town gets all dressed up and we have strolling carolers and musicians, horse-drawn carriage rides, roasted chestnuts, and other homemade treats sold on the streets.”
If you’re looking for antiques, head to the historic towns of Hope (Warren County) and Hopewell (Mercer County), both of which boast a variety of antique shops, perfect for one-of-a-kind gifts. In Hope special attractions are Moravian lead-glass stars and limited-edition tree ornaments by Jan Wargo. On December 2 and 3 (ck), Hope holds its annual holiday celebration: Streets are blocked off as more than 200 artists sell their crafts, and a bake sale offers authentic Moravian cookies and homemade cider. Hopewell holds a special kids’ shopping event on December 15 from 4 to 8 pm at the train station, with items priced from a quarter to $15, giving children the chance to safely shop for gifts for their family and friends while their parents are served refreshments in another room.
To avoid crowds, stay home for lunch. Most towns fill up between 11:30 am and 2 pm. Other busy times include Friday and Saturday nights. Still, if the town hosts special events, a tree lighting, holiday sales, or candlelight shopping, the festive atmosphere usually makes up for the crowd. Downtown shops are perfect for special gift requests. “The shopping experience in a downtown is really catered to the shopper,” says Madison’s downtown manager Janice R. Piccolo. She remembers a customer who ordered a custom piece of jewelry at a local store, and when he couldn’t pick it up on Christmas Eve, one of the store clerks wrapped the gift and delivered it to the man’s home, free of charge. When your feet give out on you, treat yourself to dinner at a family-owned restaurant. Ask area store owners and locals for recommendations. With attentive merchants who value return customers, downtown is the perfect destination for families shopping with a caravan of kids. Pack a bag of handheld games, books, snacks, and drinks to keep them occupied.
Haddonfield has candlelight shopping every Friday and Sunday, when the town turns into a scene out of Dickens, with old-fashioned carriage rides, free hot chocolate and homemade chocolate chip cookies, strolling carolers, instrumentalists, Santa Claus, Granny’s kettle corn, a live Nativity scene, and a puppet theater for kids. If you’re shopping in Hammonton, extend your stay until 7 pm on December 9, when the town has its Christmas parade; homeowners along the parade’s path adorn their homes with lights and decorations. Smack in the middle of New Brunswick’s lively shopping district there are free horse-drawn carriage rides on Friday and Saturday nights on the first three weekends in December, departing from the Hyatt Regency on Neilson Street.Click here to leave a comment