Ocean City, N.J., sold Shore shopping online and saw record crowd for Columbus Day weekend

Shoppers look at clearance items in front of By The Sea and the Cool Breeze Clothing Company on the Ocean City boardwalk during Columbus Day weekend.

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Where are the best boardwalk bargains?

There’s an app for that!

For the first time in this resort’s farewell-to-summer blowout sales, the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce and Ocean City Tourism Commission used social media to spread the word about shopping in “America’s greatest family resort” as Ocean City, N.J. (not the one in Maryland), is promoted.

About 80,000 emails were sent to residents, second-home owners, and regulars; an additional 139,000 Facebook friends were told with push notifications on a new app of all the summer events. And it was the first year for online ads on Google and Yahoo, among other sites.

It paid off. The Indian Summer Weekend event in Ocean City attracted its largest crowd in memory — more than 50,000 — for the traditional table sales along the boardwalk, crafts fair in the business district, and shops along Asbury Avenue.

Bargain hunters, such as cousins Meg and Nina Patel of Atlantic County, look through sweatshirts that were “3 for $18” or $6.99 each, last weekend on the Ocean City boardwalk.

“It was overwhelming,” said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean County Regional Chamber of Commerce, who has been at the post for a decade. “It was the biggest crowd ever.”

Among them was Sue Ostermeyer Johnson, 55, and her cousin Brenda Oxenrieter, 54, both of Pittsburgh, who were still stuffing items into their Ford van last Sunday.

“It lived up to the hype,” said Johnson, who found shirts on the boardwalk for her 11-year-old daughter marked half-off. “There were a lot of good sales, and I got a lot of my Christmas shopping done.”

Sue Ostermeyer Johnson (left), 55, and her cousin, Brenda Oxenrieter, (right) 54, both of Pittsburgh, stand next to their fully packed van after shopping on the Ocean City boardwalk and downtown crafts fair last weekend. They plan to return next year.

All told, six cousins in the clan made the seven-hour trek from Western Pennsylvania. Cousin Lynn Keener, 61, has been attending Ocean City’s Indian Summer Weekend since she was 12. Before heading back, they stuffed their van with bags of clothing, jewelry, and food from the fair that featured 480 artists and vendors. The edibles alone included honey, fresh bread, hoagies, jams, and olive oil. “I’d do all this again in a heartbeat,” said Oxenrieter.

The cousins also chowed down at Ocean City’s Boardwalk Seafood Festival with vendors in front of the Music Pier.

Business has been trending up. There are 111 storefronts in downtown Ocean City, up from 103 two seasons ago, according to the Chamber. Retail occupancy is more than 95 percent downtown and nearly 100 percent on the boardwalk, with 158 stores and restaurants. Starbucks moved in four years ago, followed by home-decor retailer the Spotted Whale and bohemian apparel seller Island Gypsy; all three are national chains.

“The Chamber has done a really great job of promoting the town,” said Tom Spadafora of Spadafora’s Seafood, who was hawking his popular lobster bisque at the seafood festival. He also owns a fresh seafood market on Haven Avenue and a restaurant at Ninth Street and Atlantic Avenue. He said the city is redoing the 2.5-mile boardwalk, block by block, with new boards. “This event keeps growing every year.”

Lots on sale at the Cool Breeze Clothing Co. on the Ocean City boardwalk on Indian Summer Weekend. More than 50,000 came to eat, stroll, and shop.

Resort towns such as Ocean City are shedding provincial practices and using new tools to ensure that shoppers don’t forget them, said Gillian.

“All the merchants worked as one — one organization to promote the end-of-summer event, whereas before it was two — for the boardwalk and the downtown district,” said Gillian. “We are on the endangered list because of so much competition from malls and online.”

This year also included a full-court press to promote Ocean City, using traditional TV and print ads with a $366,000 budget, along with a $100,000 online budget for ads in Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, York, and Philadelphia.

Ocean City, as Cape May County’s largest municipality, has a winter population of about 11,000, but swells to 150,000 for such peak summer events as Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekends.

Like many Shore towns, there has been a conscious effort to extend the season with such events as the Indian Summer Weekend sales in early October, said finance professor Michael Busler of Stockton University. Retail sales in Cape May County reached $1.23 billion in 2016, up slightly from $1.22 billion in 2015.

“Shore towns have been trying to extend the season beyond Memorial Day through Labor Day,” said Busler, notably through the “shoulder seasons,” March through April and September through October. Ocean City and Wildwood “schedule events to be held on the weekends that attract specific groups. The merchants try to attract visitors with special sales or special rates.”

An example is the sixth annual “Earlier Than the Bird” event, which encourages people to shop in their pajamas in Ocean City’s downtown, starting at 8 a.m. on Nov. 18, a week before Thanksgiving, to score early-bird specials.

Karen George (left) and Brenda Hagger, both from Maryland, shop at Pacific Soul on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City.

“This was a good summer, but we were challenged a little bit with weather,” Gillian said. “We had a few Friday night rainouts and spot showers. The shoulder season — the fall — has really helped with the bottom line for the business community to have special events.”

For such merchants as Lynne Cates, owner of Sun Seekers, at 751 Asbury Ave., which sells women’s apparel and swimwear though Jan. 1, last weekend provided an opportunity to offer 50 percent or more discounts on many items.

“We try to move the merchandise and get ready for next season, so we give people the bargains,” said Cates, 53, a Northeast Philadelphia transplant who moved to Ocean City 34 years ago and has been a shop owner here for the last quarter-century. “The goal is to turn that inventory!”

Discover everything Ocean City, N.J. has to offer with the new Ocean City, N.J. Vacation app. Download it from the App Store  or get it on Google Play