The winter shopping season is a big deal for retailers. And Black Friday may be the biggest deal of all, if you believe the hype.
But in Germantown Black Friday is more like an old memory, and in West Oak Lane it highlights how there are other ways to develop a commercial corridor.
Old memories and some good deals
The corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues once was a commercial district to rival Center City. There were two Woolworths at one time, JC Penny, Sears, rows of shoe stores and clothing stores and lots of restaurants and diners to keep the shoppers fed.
But for decades now the area has struggled, and you could see that on the quiet streets on Black Friday.
Dumar Johnson, the self proclaimed “Mayor of Chelten Avenue,” spends most of his days watching, greeting people outside of Glory and helping out in that store.
Maybe Black Friday was a big deal once in Germantown, but now he says, it’s something quite the opposite.
“It’s a dead shopping day now,” he said. “Look how slow it is up here, it’s slow… we really haven’t had a good Black Friday since like 2003.”
The big reason, Johnson thinks, is the economy. He puts it simply: people have to have money to shop, and to have money they have to have a job – and jobs are scarce.
Germantown, which is about 80 percent African American has been hit by some hard numbers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the national unemployment rate for African Americans is about 15.7 percent, and for black males that jumps to 16.3 percent. Compare that to the overall unemployment rate of 9.6 percent and it’s clear that Johnson has a point.
Still, there’s also the strong perception of better shopping at the malls.
Jamier Crawford and Darren Johnson were waiting at the corner of Chelten and Germantown avenues to catch the 26 bus to the Frankford Mall. They are both from Germantown but they wouldn’t even think about shopping there for Black Friday.
Anna Figueroa and Tyesha Brown were among a few who found what they needed on Chelten that day – namely, good cheap deals, and no competition to snatch them up.
“We were just going to come up here and see what they had but we got a lot of stuff,” Figueroa said. “What we have, we would have spent more at the malls or downtown.”
In addition to Chelten’s deep discount stores, there are a few chain electronics vendors like Radio Shack and Game Stop, which both opened in the wee hours of the morning to modest lines, spurred by heavily promoted national sales campaigns.
Gloria Cuttino and Damian Allen of Germantown weren’t out at that hour but they did make a game stop. They were glad to catch the sale so close to home, without having to trek out to the malls.
“We thought about going to the malls, but this was closer,” Cuttino said.
Neither had high ambitions for more shopping that day, however.
An exodus to the malls
Other local residents, like Sienna Fuller of Germantown made their way to the nearby Cheltenham Mall, just over the line in Montgomery County. Brown has been coming to this spot on Black Friday since she was a girl. Her father used to take her there when the mall was just a short outdoor strip.
But even Fuller didn’t plan for a big shopping day there, she had a narrower focus than that. “I said ‘today, I do myself,’” she said.
In more well established Northwest shopping districts like Manayunk, Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy Black Friday was also easy to miss. In general small shops, which tend to be the norm in those neighborhoods, can’t hope to compete with big box sales.
But in all those cases there was another selling point that Germantown and Chelten hasn’t been able to rival since its famous Christmas decorations decades ago. That is, atmosphere.
In Manayunk, Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, retailers are playing the quaint card throughout the December shopping season, with live music, outdoor events and visits from Santa to give shoppers more joy than they may find in any bargain at the mall.
There may not be the same cards in Germantown’s hand at the moment. But like Germantown, West Oak Lane has at times been in the shadow of its more wealthy neighbors and it has found a different niche that’s working.
The neighborhood’s success in recent years has little to do with the Black Friday rush, and much more to do with patience and planning.
In West Oak Lane commercial success comes in other ways
Jack Kitchen, the executive director of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, calls Ogontz an “eclectic service corridor,” with things like doctors offices, barbershops, delis and restaurants – but very few retail gift shops.
“Is it where you would come to do your Christmas shopping? I wouldn’t say so,” he said. “I would say it’s where you would come back to after you’ve done your Christmas shopping, to get something to eat.”
And in that way the corridor is doing well. It draws on the heavy traffic along Ogontz between the Northwest into Montgomery County, as well as the constant flow of cars along Cheltenham Avenue.
A new restaurant called Victoria’s Kitchen opened about two weeks ago on Ogontz in West Oak Lane, and a health spa is getting ready to open there soon, Kitchen said. He said pedestrian traffic is up on the whole and there is a higher demand for commercial space than ever, despite the bad economy.