A recent Provident Bank survey of New Jersey businesses found a decisive majority felt they had already fully recovered from COVID-19 hardships or would complete their comebacks in 2022.

That aligns with a wider snapshot taken by North Plainfield-based Levin Management Corporation, whose 2022 Retail Sentiment Outlook Survey says 73% of brick-and-mortar tenants are optimistic about their stores' potential in the year ahead.

Levin CEO Matthew Harding said that number represents nearly a 5% increase over the survey's trailing 10-year average and reflects not only the bounceback of 2021, but the "enduring" power of in-person commerce even compared to before the pandemic in 2019.

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"COVID certainly presented a huge challenge, the internet has presented challenges over time, and yet people like to get out to shop, and stores are doing very well," Harding said.

Brick-and-mortar retailers reported solid sales through the 2021 holiday season despite the staggering rise of the omicron variant, according to Harding, and despite many stores having implemented online ordering because they had no other choice when COVID first struck.

But the pairing of other new technologies like self-checkout with traditional in-store operations has literally opened new doors, either for businesses looking to expand or daring to debut.

"The number of new businesses that opened in our portfolio (in 2021) were more than a third higher than 2019, so that all is going to carry forward," Harding said.

'A good shopping experience, a helpful shopping experience, a convenient shopping experience'

That being said, more than two-thirds of employers who responded to the Levin survey said they are actively looking to hire more staff, and slightly more said they have found it harder to identify qualified candidates.

So more than half of retailers also said they are planning on increasing worker training this year, to better respond to the pandemic-adjusted needs and tastes of shoppers.

"They want to provide a good shopping experience, a helpful shopping experience, a convenient shopping experience for their customers," Harding said.

Harding feels both the hiring and supply chain crises are starting to ease and will continue to do so as 2022 goes along, but added that no one can really be sure when things will be back to what might be considered "normal."

One thing that will help in New Jersey, he said, is the arrival of the Jersey Shore tourism season in late spring, by which time Harding believes Levin's midyear survey will be painting an even brighter retail picture.

"I would expect so, definitely, and I would expect, weather permitting (and) cooperating, a very strong Shore season this year," he said.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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