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Few cash-only spots, abundant credit card fees: How Jersey Shore boardwalks have changed with consumer habits

At Ocean City's Surf Mall, co-owner Chris Kazmarck (right) has a card fee at his businesses while his brother and co-owner, Wes, does not. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)
At Ocean City’s Surf Mall, co-owner Chris Kazmarck (right) has a card fee at his businesses while his brother and co-owner, Wes, does not. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)
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Inside the Surf Mall, brothers Wes and Chris Kazmarck are at odds.

They co-own the mall on the Ocean City boardwalk and manage different stores that sit feet apart. But they don’t agree on something that has become a hot topic among Shore business owners: Credit card fees.

With cards now the default payment method, “people think I’m throwing money away by not doing it,” said Wes Kazmarck, president of the Boardwalk Merchants Association, as he stood behind the counter at T-Shirt World in the center of the mall. But “I’ll be the last one” to pass along the charge to card-paying customers, added Kazmarck, noting he’d rather raise prices or offer cash discounts.

Manning the register at Rock Star Headquarters at the back of the mall, his brother, Chris, said he doesn’t see how businesses can stay afloat without the fees. Last summer, Chris Kazmarck implemented a 3% credit card surcharge at his four Surf Mall stores.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was definitely the right decision,” he said.

Chris Kazmarck joined a growing number of boardwalk business owners who have started passing along credit card fees to customers.

“It was really difficult to absorb the costs when you see bills of thousands of dollars per month going to the credit cards,” said Eli Romy, who owns multiple boardwalk shops and was one of the first to institute credit card fees about six years ago.

The trend at the Ocean City boardwalk is a by-product of changes to the broader consumer landscape, one in which more people pay for everyday purchases with credit cards — or just a tap of their phone — and fewer people carry cash. A decade or so ago, several business owners on the boardwalk said far more customers paid with cash. Today, cash payers are the minority.

Business owners on the Wildwood and Ocean City boardwalks say the vast majority of customers today pay with credit cards, including via Apple Pay or other digital wallets. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Business owners on the Wildwood and Ocean City boardwalks say the vast majority of customers today pay with credit cards, including via Apple Pay or other digital wallets. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)

A decade ago, “even the hotels and motels, restaurants, boardwalk businesses, whether it was the food establishments or amusements, it was a much larger percentage of cash payments, absolutely,” said Wildwood Business Improvement District president John Donio.

The shift started pre-COVID, but business owners said the pandemic, which led some to temporarily fear touching cash, accelerated it.

The more consumers swipe, the more business owners pay in card transaction fees. At the same time, businesses are saddled with increased costs of just about everything — goods, payroll, rent, even reusable bags that fall in line with New Jersey’s plastic bag ban.

None of these pressures are unique to Shore businesses. But the ramifications seem more vividly on display at a place where so many visitors return — summer after summer, generation after generation — to remember a simpler time.

In a way, changing consumer habits and the way businesses have adapted to them have altered a bit of the boardwalk’s nostalgic identity.

“People used to think ‘cash boardwalk,'” said Wes Kazmarck. Now, not so.

To add a fee or not?

Up and down the boards in Ocean City and Wildwood, there are signs of this changing dynamic:

Stickers on store windows advertise that merchants take an array of credit cards and sometimes Apple Pay and Venmo, too. There are only a handful of cash-only spots: one mini-golf course, one arcade, and the beloved Wildwood pizza shops, Sam’s and Mack’s. A handwritten note on an Ocean City food-court counter reminds customers they’d save by paying in cash.

Shops that charge credit card fees usually have a sign near the register alerting customers to the fee, as is required by state law. At Chris Kazmarck’s RockStar Headquarters, the message is taped to the counter surrounded by a bright red box with an all-caps heading: “SAVE. PAY WITH CASH.”

For business owners who have added a credit card fee, it’s a decision they said they’ve mulled over.

“This is not something that we took easily to doing,” said Jody Levchuk, who co-owns with his brother the Jilly’s brand of retail, gift, food, and amusement businesses on the Ocean City boardwalk. “My brother or I didn’t just wake up and say how can we make more money today? How can we take more from our customer?”

In fact, the 3% credit card fee at some Jilly’s locations doesn’t even cover the full cost of what they are charged for card payments, given that different cards have different fees.

Gus Kazakos, owner of Opa Gyros & Crepes on the 900 block of the Ocean City boardwalk, put his decision to institute a card fee more bluntly: “You have to find a way to survive.”

Eli Romy mans the register at one of his boardwalk shops, Shelly's by the Sea, in Ocean City. A sign tells customers they will pay more if they use a credit card. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Eli Romy mans the register at one of his boardwalk shops, Shelly’s by the Sea, in Ocean City. A sign tells customers they will pay more if they use a credit card. (Jessica Griffin / The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Card fees aren’t changing consumer habits

If Shoregoers want to avoid any surcharges — either for credit card payments or ATM withdrawals — they can always take out cash before they head to the boards.

That’s what retiree Nancy Yackel of Mount Laurel does for vacations in Ocean City, she said as she counted her cash last month before making a purchase at Fisherman’s Cove gift shop.

But business owners said Yackel is in the minority. The vast majority of customers are swiping.

People certainly aren’t rushing to the dozens of boardwalk ATMs, where they also get hit with a fee ranging from $3 to $6.

In the years since the pandemic, the Original Fudge Kitchen on the Ocean City boardwalk did away with its ATM because it was used so rarely, said manager Martin Garvalov.

At Shelly’s by the Sea, Romy said he doesn’t make much money anymore from the in-store ATM, which charges customers $4 a transaction, and from which he gets a 50% cut of the proceeds.

“I used to be able to make good money out of it,” he said. “People were pulling out a lot of cash, but people aren’t doing that anymore. People don’t use cash for anything.”

While some business owners with credit card fees said they have heard few complaints, the charges do stop a few customers and occasionally contribute to a mid-vacation family squabble.

“You’ll see maybe the wife is like, ‘I’m just gonna pay in cash, then. I don’t wanna pay the fee.’ And then the husband will say, ‘Just put it on the damn card, I want to get the points,'” said Levchuk, co-owner of Jilly’s. “You’re never going to make everybody happy, including even a husband and wife that are trying to figure out how to spend $30.”

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