NYC's South Street Seaport: Using Mobile Tech to Keep Sales Ringing

Smart Wallet
Vincenzo Lombardo | Getty Images

While super storm Sandy blasted through the Northeast three months ago, some business communities are still struggling to return to normal. Take lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport.

The historic shopping and residential community, known for its unique cobbled streets and proximity to the water, isn't yet fully up and running. Many stores remain closed. A few select residents are still without power and Verizon phone service is still out.

"There's very little foot traffic in the Seaport right now because we're one of the few shops open," said Gideon Finck, an assistant printer at Bowne & Co. Stationers, which features 19th century letter printing.

But Finck and others in the community are forging ahead, in some cases ingeniously using mobile technology to keep their cash registers ringing.

(Read More: How Mobile Technology Is Revolutionizing In-Store Shopping)

No Traditional Credit Card Machines? No Problem

Back in November, as small businesses assessed water damage after the Oct. 29 storm, it quickly became apparent lack of phone service was a huge problem for retailers, said Daria Siegel of the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit business improvement district that has a contract with New York City.

Phone service is not only important for calls, but vital to connect to credit-card machines. "Retailers had signs like, 'Open for Business. Cash Only,' " Siegel recalled.

Siegel and the Downtown Alliance were aware of mobile technology that could replace traditional credit-machines, hooked up to phone lines. They reached out to San Francisco-based startup Square, a mobile payments upstart that features an app for Apple iPhone and Android devices called Square Register.

The mobile platform includes a small, card-reading attachment that hooks to a mobile device and accepts payments anywhere. The apps also run on 3G cellular networks — and don't require WiFi Internet access to operate.

Square was launched in late December 2009, and was co-founded by Twitter's Jack Dorsey. Square's technology platform works for businesses of all sizes — from food trucks, to doctors who make house calls, to brick-and-mortar retail shops, and more than 7,000 Starbucks stores.

(Read More: NYC Grows as Hub for Small Digital, Entertainment Businesses)

Sara Williams, co-owner of Fresh Salt in the South Street Seaport area, received one of about 100 free Square Wallet devices. With Verizon phone service out, she has since switched to Time Warner Cable and is using Square Wallet to keep sales flowing.

Given the damage to the South Street Seaport area, Verizon is installing a new fiber-optic network that will serve residential and commercial customers, a Verizon spokesman said. Verizon projects to have more than 90 percent of commercial properties, where it has access, restored for voice and high-speed data by the end of January.

Fresh Salt, a restaurant and bar on Beekman Street, sustained about seven feet of water damage and everything had to be ripped out down to the bare walls. "It was really intense," Williams said.

Bowne & Co. Stationers, located in lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport, was among the businesses impacted by Sandy.
Source: South Street Seaport Museum
Bowne & Co. Stationers, located in lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport, was among the businesses impacted by Sandy.

Merging Old and New Technology

Bowne & Co. Stationers is also using Square Wallet to record credit-card sales. Not bad for a New York City business whose roots date back to the 1800s. The business used to print financial prospectuses. After the storm, everything from large, iron presses to thousands of small, movable lead and wooden type pieces had to be cleaned with fresh water and dried with high-powered fans. About 100 volunteers worked on the restoration efforts without electricity or heat late last year.

Bowne & Co. Stationers suffered roughly two-feet of water damage, much less than some of their small-business neighbors. "It could have been a lot worse," Finck said.

But while Bowne & Co. Stationers is up and running, its fate is tied to the area, as is its ability to restore business back to normal, as quickly as possible. "We're not immune to the struggles for the neighborhood as a whole," Finck said.

Ironically, the original 17th century Manhattan low-tide water line is across the street from Bowne & Co. Stationers on Water Street. So when Manhattan was first settled by the Dutch, "our street was in the river," Finck said.

(Read More: The Post-Sandy Quest: Coffee...And a Shower)

By CNBC's Heesun Wee; Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee