Saint John cruise season 'vital' or 'dismal' for retailers, depending on proximity to ship

Two businesses in Saint John, less than a kilometre apart, describe a vastly different experience when cruise ships come into port.

Uptown Saint John uses pedestrian counters to better understand movement of visitors through city core

The owner of Steamers Lobster Company on Water Street says it is 'organized chaos' at his restaurant during the peak of the cruise ship season. (Matthew Bingley/CBC )

When the cruise season in Saint John is in full swing, the scene at Steamers Lobster Co. is "organized chaos," said owner Roy Billingsley.

On many days, the lineup stretches right around the corner of the restaurant at 110 Water St., from noon until 4 p.m., with round-the-clock orders of lobster rolls and beer.

Billingsley said over one-third of his overall revenue comes off the ships.

"The cruise season is vital," he said. "Without it, I don't think we would exist."

He described sales of about $200,000.

"The last season was my best season ever. I like to think we do a better job of what we're doing, but having those ships arriving every day through the fall is contributing greatly."

A short 13-minute walk up to King's Square and past Union Street takes you to Dave Shoots Bookseller at 40 Coburg St.

Wendy Matheson, left, calls the passengers who make it into her bookstore on Coburg Street 'the escapees.' (Submitted by Wendy Matheson)

It's less than a kilometre away, but few passengers meander that far, said co-owner Wendy Matheson.

"We definitely do not depend on the cruise ships at all," Matheson said, describing those visitors who reach the store as "escapees."

"The shore excursion groups usually get them right on the bus and off they go," she said. "The folks that don't do that are usually more independent, and brave enough to strike out on their own."

Saint John welcomed more than 208,000 cruise ship passengers and crew this past cruise season, with the average passenger expenditure about $65.

Matheson said her own record-keeping would attribute less than $500 of the bookstore's revenue to cruise ships this past season.

She said the shop would usually welcome one party out of every two or three calls by the ships.

"It was really dismal," she said. "And the other thing that happens is when the cruise ships are in town, no one local comes because it's too crazy to get around.

"So I get the double whammy of — not only do I not get any of the cruise ship people, none of my locals come in either. So cruise ship days for me are not fun days."

Uptown Saint John installed two pedestrian counters on Friday ahead of its Uptown Sparkles holiday event, to better gauge how people are moving throughout the city core. (Submitted by Holly McKay)

It's a sharp juxtaposition Uptown Saint John is interested in learning more about.

The group recently acquired six infrared pedestrian counters to get a better sense of how people are moving about the uptown.

Two of the counters on King Street went live on Friday ahead of the popular Uptown Sparkles holiday event.

"Anecdotally, we see what streets are busy, but people wanting to start businesses here are not sure where to set up," said Nancy Tissington, executive director of Uptown Saint John. "So we wanted to provide some data to actually say, 'I think I like this street because it has the most potential.'"

Better signs in the works

Tissington said once Uptown Saint John gets a better sense of how people are moving through the core, it can start to brainstorm ways to guide them further into the interior streets.

"We're trying to get a pattern of where people are, because we're looking at putting some signs in the spring," she said. "So where should we put that signage that best collects the most people.

"It's not about changing their patterns, but learning where their patterns are, and adjusting ourselves … letting people know we have a good portion of galleries here. There are those travelling who love to look at libraries and museums.

"So [through] wayfinding and signage, that'll be very helpful in letting people know where our great assets are."

Can only do so much

Tissington said barring that, there isn't a lot the association can do to change the way people move about the city.

"I think these folks are focused," she said. "When they come in, they generally have six hours and they're preplanned, they're going to see some of the assets in our town, and they may not be shopping as much.

"It does create a nice energy for us … but I heard anecdotally that small businesses, sometimes they say it's the gravy on top, but they don't see a huge hit to their sales."

About the Author

Sarah Trainor


Sarah Trainor is a reporter, and news reader for Information Morning Saint John. She has worked for the CBC since 2005.