Allentown gift card sales top $88K, a sign of busier times?

Date: Dec 24, 2014

For years, most Christmas shoppers ignored downtown Allentown, but with new buildings and a new outlook, center city could be headed for a holiday turnaround. Now, people are giving the gift of Allentown. Sales of the city's AMP card, a gift card that can be used at 40 downtown retailers and restaurants, has exceeded expectations during its first year, topping $88,000 since September, officials said this week.

Organized by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce's Hamilton District Main Street Program, the cards work like a debit MasterCard at participating businesses throughout the Main Street district. Dozens of high-profile establishments, including PPL Center, Hamilton Kitchen restaurant and Miller Symphony Hall, have signed onto the program. Sales have been brisk, particularly during the holiday season, said Mitch Hanna, manager of the Hamilton District. A burst of new businesses in Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone — including the arena and new restaurants such as Chickie's and Pete's, Roar Social House and Tony Luke's — have fueled the card's success, drawing attention to Allentown's business district, Hanna said.

Many customers have bought the cards for family and friends to put toward tickets for PPL Center events, he said. The arena doesn't have its own gift cards, but the AMP cards allow gift-givers to put money toward tickets without locking into a firm date. Other people have bought tickets and paired them with an AMP card — it stands for Allentown Merchant Program — so that their loved ones can grab a meal at a local restaurant before or after a game or concert, Hanna said.

Santo Napoli, chairman of the Hamilton District's business development committee and owner of assembly88, New York Urban and the Archive, said the success of the program shows a broader sentiment that people want downtown Allentown to succeed.

Buyers are introducing their families and friends to Allentown's restaurants and merchants, he said. "Everyone is believing in it," Napoli said. "It's really nice to see."

Launched in September, the cards are intended to be an alternative to universal gift cards offered by suburban malls. Merchants got behind the program from the start — 35 were signed on when it launched — and several more have joined since then, including Billy's Downtown Diner, men's clothier Assembly 88 and Venny's Pizza. By comparison, a similar gift card program in Easton has sold $47,000 worth since September 2013.

Hanna said the Chamber is thrilled with the Allentown program's success so far. "We had no idea it was going to take off like this," Hanna said. "I love hearing people say, 'Can I buy an AMP card?' It's becoming part of the language downtown."

Nothing has replaced Allentown's retail past, when customers scurried from Apple Jeweler's and Leh's to Hess's and Benioff's Furs for the perfect holiday gift. Full-service restaurants, particularly the Hamilton Kitchen, have seen the most sales of the gift cards, Hanna said. But smaller eateries have also seen a serious boost. Kyle's Courthouse Deli, a lunch spot in the 500 block of Hamilton Street, has been one of the top performers, impressive considering the restaurant is open only until 3 p.m.

Signing up for the program was a no-brainer, said Kyle Pavlick, owner of the deli. Merchants must pay a $75 annual fee to participate — $150 for businesses over 2,000 square feet — but lots of new people have walked through the door since the cards began to circulate, Pavlick said.

Overall sales of the cards have been aided by a substantial purchase from one downtown company. The company, which Hanna would not name, bought cards for each member of its staff. Hanna would not comment on how much the company spent, only that it bought a "larger amount." Pavlick said he's had multiple customers from Air Products at the deli using AMP cards loaded with $500 each. Calls to several Air Products officials were not returned. Air Products and City Center Investment Corp. both donated $5,000 to help get the gift card program off the ground.

Napoli said multiple companies have bought the cards for members of their staffs. assembly88, one of three locations where the cards can be purchased or loaded, has sold 10 to 15 AMP cards daily for the last week. Cards can also be bought at the Allentown Art Museum and the Chamber of Commerce office at Ninth and Hamilton streets. "I think they see the value of keeping their money downtown," he said of businesses who have bought the cards. Napoli said he's excited for the program's second year, when organizers will have time to better market the gift cards. While there has been a lot of buzz around the construction in Allentown in the last year, the success of the gift cards shows there's just as much interest in getting people through the door at Allentown's newest attractions, he said. "You hear about the brick-and-mortar momentum with all the buildings," Napoli said. "This is different."

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