Managers of physical retail store locations across New Jersey and the surrounding region are overwhelmingly optimistic about the continued bounce-back of sales and foot traffic with most COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, according to an annual midyear survey by Levin Management Corporation.

Nearly two-thirds, 65%, of respondents said they felt sales would improve even further from where they are right now through the end of the year, and another 19% predict they will at least maintain their current levels.

Levin CEO Matthew Harding said starting in the late spring, the combination of widely available COVID vaccines and an itch to get back out and do things after a whole year has made stores really busy, leading to a strong summer resurgence.

Surveying those out on the floors of mostly supermarket- or big box-anchored shopping centers helps paint the most accurate picture of how New Jersey shoppers are feeling right now, Harding said.

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"It's regionalized to our area, and then also, it's managers, people who are really dealing day-to-day with changes and running a business and a shopping center in New Jersey," he said.

Retail staffs have had to adjust to and embrace changes in technology that were slowly developing before the pandemic, such as mobile ordering and text alerts, but kicked into overdrive when customers were barred from entering non-essential shops last spring.

More than five out of six (85%) implemented changes of this type, according to the survey.

"COVID accelerated the need for change for business owners, retailers, restaurants to reach their customers in different ways," Harding said. "Nearly 60% of our respondents are going to keep things in place, so that's sticky. Their customers have gotten used to it, and it works well for them, ways to augment their sales."

One significant roadblock to a continued boom is the worker shortage evident in New Jersey and elsewhere. More than 70% of managers surveyed say they are currently hiring for open positions, with close to 80% saying it is harder now to find quality candidates.

"You have folks coming out wanting to shop, wanting to dine, and retailers, restaurateurs, other business owners not really being able to fully accommodate that growth," Harding said.

Even though this poll asked for managers' outlooks through the rest of 2021, Levin Management Corporation will next check in with them just prior to the holiday shopping season in mid-autumn.

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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