QUEENS — On a recent Saturday afternoon, about a dozen women sat surrounded by shopping bags on a bus parked on Merrick Boulevard in Jamaica waiting for the rest of their group, which was still hunting along Jamaica Avenue for the best bargains on clothes, fragrances and pocketbooks.
The women, who seemed exhausted but happy as they compared their finds, hadn't come from elsewhere in the borough or even the city.
Rather, they'd arrived in Jamaica that morning after an 8-hour overnight trip from Steubenville, Ohio.
“I like that orange purse that you bought,” said one.
“We got New York ball caps up there in the flea market for $2 each,” bragged another.
Once a shopping destination for much of Queens and even Long Island, Jamaica has quietly become a major draw for shoppers from around the East Coast over the last two decades, with tour groups coming from North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Tennessee, according to the Jamaica Center Business Improvement District.
The Steubenville group, affiliated with Mt. Zion Baptist church, came to New York on a $180 two-day tour, which, in addition to the shopping spree in Jamaica, included a trip to a casino in Yonkers, hotel and a Sunday service at a church in Hempstead, Long Island.
Wylene Alexander, 59, who organized the trip, said that next time the group may have to come to Jamaica for two full days.
“You just don’t have enough time,” Alexander said. “There are so many stores, so many bargains.”
Jamaica Avenue is packed with stores that include a number of large retailers such as Nine West Outlet, Gap Factory Store, Strawberry, K&G Fashion Superstore and Marshalls.
And the neighborhood, which was once home to Macy's, Mays and Gertz, is slated to get its first department store in decades.
New residential buildings, hotels and eateries are also coming to the neighborhood, including a recently opened high-end BBQ restaurant Cityrib.
Sandra Williams, the owner of Elite Tour and Travel company, which has been bringing shoppers to Jamaica from Norfolk, Va., for 20 years, said the neighborhood provides out-of-state shoppers with unique deals.
“You just can’t get that stuff where we come from,” she said. “And if you see that stuff in Norfolk, it’s much more expensive.”
She also said that stores in Jamaica have more variety than those in Virginia.
“For example, we have a Conway here in Norfolk, but nothing compares to the one on Jamaica Avenue.”
Williams charges $65 (covering transportation) per person for a one-day trip, which begins at 1 a.m. Saturday. Buses, which can fit up to 55 people, return to Norfolk around 2 a.m. on Sunday, she said.
Some shoppers come back to Queens every year, said Williams, who is bringing her next group to Jamaica in mid August for back-to-school deals.
For example, at Conway, shirts and blouses for school uniforms start from $4.99, pants and jumpers from $7.99.
“When people go to Jamaica Avenue, they also feel more comfortable than in Manhattan,” she said. “They shop...have their nails done…They love it.”
Williams joked that shoppers buy so much that “sometimes the bus almost cannot move because of the heaviness of the packages that are underneath there.”
Sharron Cain, 40, who works at Trinity West Hospital in Steubenville, said her favorite part of the shopping trip was bargaining with merchants and street vendors.
“I talked the prices down,” she said. “When they said $60, I said $35, and they gave it to me.”
She said purses she bought for $35 on Jamaica Avenue would cost more than double in her hometown. All together, she said she spent $250.
“Jamaica is jam-packed with stores that offer great fashion and great styles at great prices,” said Laurel Brown, executive director of the Jamaica Center BID, which coordinates free parking for the buses.
She estimates that around a dozen similar buses come to the neighborhood every month and in recent years, the BID has been trying to attract more shoppers from outside New York by giving them discount coupons, free shopping bags and recommendations about where to shop.
Stores in downtown Jamaica welcome shoppers from other states.
“We see people coming from all over — North Carolina, Georgia, Philadelphia…,” said Al Falack from Cookie’s, a children's department store.
“Sometimes they take a bus trip and sometimes they come individually,” added Falack, who estimated that shoppers from other states constitute at least 5 percent of customers at the Jamaica Avenue location.
Pat Bailey, 53, a nail technician, who came with the Steubenville group, said the tour was her birthday gift.
“It was a lot of work on your feet with no sleep,” she said. “But once I started shopping it was great.”
Bailey, who said she bought toiletries, a couple of New York hats for $5, and a purse for $35, said the trip “was worth it.”
“I’ll be back,” she added.