Conquest Leaves Behind Some Happy Coast Merchants

For 18 consecutive Sundays, Conquest employees became South Mississippi tourists. They relaxed. They ate. And they shopped in Gulfport and Biloxi.

CTA buses took the employees to four locations -- the Highway 49 Wal Mart, Prime Outlets, Belk, and Edgewater Mall.

Apparently, there was a party inside those stores whenever Carnival pulled into port. You see, Saturday used to be Belk's busiest shopping day. That changed when Conquest sailed into Gulfport. "We were pleasantly surprised," said Belk's manager Christopher Campbell.

Each Sunday since March 9, Campbell's store paid CTA $48 a week to make sure hundreds of Conquest employees had transportation from their ship to his cash registers. Prime Outlets and Wal Mart also paid $48 apiece for the one day shuttle service. Which means CTA made $2,448 because Conquest temporarily had to dock in Gulfport.

"We think it was a good investment," said Campbell, "if nothing else to get people out here, to remember we're out here, and we can service their needs."

Clerks who work on a commission appreciated the Sunday shopping rush. "They bought a lot of stuff, a lot of product," said cosmetics clerk Maria Etheridge. She laughed about the language barrier that made communicating with the ship's staff a unique sales experience. "We were happy when they came in the store," Etheridge said, "because we knew our sales were going to be great."

Great sales. That's why Prime Outlets rolled out its own Carnival red carpet. Even though the ship left Sunday, several stores still had welcome signs in their windows. Managers didn't want to forget the last 18 Sundays, when cabs and buses brought business to their shops. "Incredible. Very busy," said Nike manager Keith Pavolini.

His Sunday business grew "20%-50% up over previous Sundays. In fact we had to beef up our staff on Sundays, just to account for all the traffic, the extra traffic, due to the bus dropping everyone off here. It was great."