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A Shortened Holiday Season Turned Out 'OK'

Like beauty, the economic perspective of this past holiday season seems to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to Alexandria merchants. It runs the gamut from very happy to very disappointed with the vast majority giving it an "okay, but not great," rating.

At the top end of the enthusiasm scale was Marsha Wright, manager of The Pendleton Shop. "Things went really great. Our holiday sales exceeded last year. Our customers were willing to spend," Wright said.

What had her particularly worried was that the shop had been closed throughout most of the summer due to moving and total renovations. It reopened in September in its new location at 419 King St., just one door removed from its previous address.

"We were store of the month in both September and November for the Pendleton chain," Wright added. "Our female sales were higher than before and our male sales are growing. Sales of our Native American blankets were exceptional." The new store features larger dressing rooms and access to the shop from both the King Street and Tavern Square sides.

The flip side of Wright's enthusiasm was voiced by Sherry Jessup, owner of The Pineapple, 106 N. Lee St. "Sales were definitely off and so was the traffic. We just didn't get the same number of people and those we did get didn't seem to be as festive," she said.

"We were so surprised at the Scottish Walk this year. It just wasn't the same. People didn't come to the shopping district. We need to get the parade route back to the way it was. We have far too much Christmas merchandise left over and now on sale," Wright emphasized.

Stanley E. Rudy, co-owner of Wilfred Rodgers, 320 King St., was somewhat skeptical until Thanksgiving, "then everything picked up," he said. "Last year was the best December I ever had because the city did a lot to promote shopping in Old Town and staying at home," Rudy explained.

"This year people felt more adventurous and moved out from their home base. 2001 was a fluke. This shopping season was more realistic. But, in the final analysis, we did well," he conceded.

Pat and Bernadette Troy, who own and operate both The Irish Walk shop and Pat Troy's Restaurant and Pub, were "satisfied" with the holiday season. "It was about even with last year," Pat said. "Thanks to the last 10 days. And, the restaurant did well over the holidays."

IN THE TOY department things seemed to remain status quo with a slight tilt downward. Imaginarium manager Bryan Egan acknowledged, "We came out about even with last year. The item that went the best was the learning aid known as Leap Frog."

Kate Schlabach, owner of Why Not, on the corner of South Lee and King streets, conceded her sales "were down a little bit. But, the last five days things really picked up." She speculated that the slow start could be attributed to a combination of "the weather and the shorter time span between Thanksgiving and Christmas."

She also noted, "This year there wasn't a set item people needed. That final week our toys just flew out of here." Although she was not disappointed in the holiday season, she noted, "It can always be better."

At Alexandria's two shops where Christmas is a year round event, The Christmas Attic on South Union Street and House In The Country on North Fairfax Street, 2002 proved to be "about the same as 2000," according to manager Betsy Husser.

"Last year we had such a big year. This was more the norm. I do have more inventory than usual left over but that is not as critical to us since we promote Christmas all year long," she explained.

Her best sales were in the Department 56 items which create a variety of miniature scenes such as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" Village, The North Pole, and others. Husser also concluded the normally robust Christmas Walk weekend was "flat this year." She speculated that part of the problem may have been the weather exacerbated by the parade's route.

"Santa" visits the Christmas stores every weekend from Thanksgiving until Christmas. "We offer patrons a free picture with Santa throughout the holiday season," Husser said. She also suggested that shoppers would be helped with a more uniform parking validation procedure that was better advertised.

IN THE CATEGORY of something for the home, sales assessments ranged from "pretty normal" to "we did really well." Tina Ntonados, long-time salesperson at Restoration Hardware on King Street expressed the latter description. "We had to hire extra help and we did much better than last year," she insisted.

Things that pushed those sales were several retro items such as old fashioned bingo sets, dart boards, and model trains. "Many of our customers were buying these items so that the whole family could enjoy them. It encouraged families to spend more time together," Ntonados explained.

Craig Frick, one of the owners of Timothy Williams Home Furnishing at the Torpedo factory, assessed December as "okay." He noted, "November was very good. December was slightly down. But, we are up for the year overall."

Two other King Street merchants who target home products had mixed reactions to the 2002 holiday buying season. Jeff Albert, owner of Rugs to Riches, maintained, "sales went better than last year. There appeared to be less traffic but people were buying higher end merchandise. All of our Christmas items are gone."

Adam Winer, owner of Artcraft, 132 King St., one of Old Town's most eclectic haven's, found 2002 holiday shoppers to be "about even with those of 2001. It was more of a struggle this year to meet our goal. The shortened shopping season didn't help, coupled with the weather."

IN CONTRAST TO Rugs to Riches, Winer said, "We didn't see as many large purchases as last year. Overall, we were happy because we didn't expect to see the same rate of growth as we experienced last year."

That normalcy trend was also noted by Peter Gorski, owner of The Icon Gallery at the Torpedo Factory. "I've been here six years and this year's holiday sales were much in line with previous years," he said.

Another must for those seeking the unusual is BOwhe & PEaRe, 106 N. Saint Asaph St. Owner Per Huge-Jensen described sales as "very similar to 2001. Although, it can always be better, we were extremely pleased."

He attributed that reaction to, "Although the economy is on a down turn people always want their homes to look as good as possible. And, the stores that are successful are the ones keeping up with what the people want." This is BOwhe & PEaRe's fourth year in Old Town.

Tucked off the beaten path of King Street frontage is Gallery Lafayette, The Framing Gallery, and studio of Todd Healy. But, that did not adversely impact his holiday season. "We're about even with last year. We have our loyal neighborhood customers to thank for that," Healy exclaimed.

Artist and creator of the annual Alexandria Calendar, Healy attributes a good holiday season to his diverse offerings. In addition to a wide array of art works, Gallery Lafayette offers such items as mugs, napkins, note cubes, tea towels, rock glasses, holiday gift tags, wine sacks, and tote bags.

"It's not just art and framing that brings in the customers but all the other things we have to offer. Our calendars and Christmas cards were huge sellers this year," he emphasized. "Custom framing was also up."

THIS FLURRY OF last minute shopping was aided by an increase in tourist traffic, according to the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association. "We estimate that visitors to the city were up about 10 percent over last year," said Laura Overstreet, ACVA deputy director. This was based on those utilizing the Ramsey House Visitors Center throughout the holiday season.

Other beneficiaries of the increased tourist trade were providers of services such as hotels, restaurants, transportation, and others. Although, the final analysis is still several weeks away it is expected that the 2002 holiday period will prove to be economically positive for Alexandria's business community.