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Yes, Mount Vernon — There Was a Retail Christmas

If the reactions of individual merchants throughout the Mount Vernon area are any barometer — big is definitely not better.

While the major retailers from Wal Mart to Nordstrom were slicing and dicing prices beginning as far back as Halloween, independent merchants were maintaining their prices and making sales that equalled or bested last year. And, it was true from antiques to toys — with a few exceptions.

This was the first holiday season for the newly revitalized Mount Vernon Antiques Market, 8101 Richmond Highway, formerly known as Thieves Market. "Sales went very well for our first holiday season as the new owners," said Sam Nasafi, son of the owner, Sayed Nasafi, and property manager. "Better than we had expected."

Last January it was announced that the Richmond Highway antique hallmark was closing when second generation owner and operator, Kaplan Cohen, decided to move to the warmer temperatures of Florida. Many of the dealers also decided to either retire or move to other venues.

But the Nasafi family decided to maintain the site as an antique mall. "We started with only six dealers in June. Now we're up to 25. Our goal is to be full by this coming June," Sam Nasafi emphasized. The name was changed when they declined to buy the original name, "Thieves Market," from Cohen as part of the sales agreement, according to Nasafi.

Particularly enthusiastic about the recently concluded holiday shopping season was Charles "Ben" Vennell, owner, Hollin Hall Variety Store, 7902 Fort Hunt Road in the Hollin Hall Shopping Center.

"If you remove from the analysis all the patriotic items which were purchased last year, we are about six percent over in sales this year," Vennell explained.

"We beat our sales figures for 2000, which was the last normal year. We had a very good season. I didn't see any soft sales time from the fall forward," he said.

THE FACT THAT many of the major chain stores were cutting inventories, as well as retail prices, worked to Vennell's advantage, he maintained. "My wholesale distributors were offering me merchandise at good prices that the big stores where cutting," he said.

"Since the big stores take their deliveries in stages many were canceling the later deliveries in fear of being over stocked. When sales picked up in the final week or so for them it meant that in many cases they were out of merchandise that we had.

"This was particularly true of things like decorations and holiday lights. People were calling and asking if we had lights. When I told them 'of course,' they said we were the only ones," Vennell explained.

Operated by Ben and his wife, Ann, the Variety Store offers a total panoply of merchandise from clothing items, to toiletries, to craft and decorator specialties. "I hate to run out of anything. The only item we totally sold out over the holidays was gift tags," he admitted.

Even that was replaced by ingenuity. "We took regular sales tags, put a holiday symbol on them, like a Santa or a tree, and satisfied our customers that way," Vennell noted. "As for the outdoor lights we sell them all year. We supply a lot to Mount Vernon Estate for their year round illuminations."

THE HOLIDAY SALES season lived up to Jennifer Tanner's hopes. She's the manager at Kids Again, a consignment shop in the Hollin Hall center.

Selling both clothing and toys lead to some anxiety heading into the season since they had relocated in April 2001 and last year didn't offer a true indicator of sales potential.

"We ended up doing well, pretty much the same as 2001," Tanner said. "We had a bigger store when we were on Sherwood Hall Lane." On the Friday following Thanksgiving, the official commencement of the holiday shopping season, Tanner had observed that sales were somewhat off but was hoping that would change as holiday buying picked up. It did, she verified.

Most of the merchants interviewed attributed the late holiday buying start to three primary factors — the shortened shopping season, with six less days in 2002 between Thanksgiving and Christmas; the sniper attacks in the fall, just when things usually begin to pick up; and the weather that dumped some early snow.

Kevin Green, owner of The Virginia Florist at Belle View Shopping Center, said, "It was a nice Christmas shopping season but late breaking. I haven't done the actual math just yet but my gut tells me we were up about five to 10 percent."

With a wide array of items, as well as flowers, Green was pleased that all but one of his series of framed original 1960's rock concert posters had sold. Heralding concerts at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, circa 1966-1967, they were priced at $350.

"The only one we still have is the one with the girl with the green hair. Everybody admired it but nobody bought it. Maybe, it was just too far out," he speculated.

This is only the third holiday season for the shop under Green's ownership. He purchased it from the original owners in February 2000.

"Individual flower sales seemed to be rather flat," he said. "But, our corporate accounts really grew this year. We are encouraging people to establish house accounts. That way they can just call in, have us send their order, and get a bill on a monthly basis."

Kathy Richards, owner of Kathy's Corner Cards and Gifts, also in the Belle View Shopping Center, asserted, "We did very well. Our sales were up about five percent over last year. We did particularly well in candles, accessories, and the Hallmark ornaments."

The latter was evident by the lack of the specialty ornaments still available. That display was completely full on Black Friday. Many buyers collect particular ones from various themes such as Star Wars or Disney classics from year to year.

HOWEVER, THERE WAS a down side even in this venue of merchandising. Amara Sylla, manager at Radio Shack, Belle View center, noted, "Sales were not as good as I had hoped. But, I did hit my goal. DVD players and DVD/VCR combination players went very well as did digital cameras."

Two other Belle View center merchants who experienced a lackluster holiday sales season were Mike Cunningham, owner, Skaters Paradise, and Libby Bryant, manager Hodges Gallery. Both saw a drop in sales.

"This is the second bad holiday sales season in a row for us," Cunningham said. "We were off from last year which was down from 2000."

He attributed this to the weakened economy and a sense of economic uncertainty in the coming months. "There seems to be a general feeling that the economy is not good. When the economy slows down, the first thing people cut is recreational expenses. They are more concerned with the basic necessities."

For Bryant, her Black Friday speculation that there would be a lot of last minute framing and buying, didn't materialize. "Sales were more down than last year and we had a lot fewer browsers this year," she lamented.

"A lot of our regular customers who normally come in early November just didn't show up this year. I think the shorter time frame between the holidays caught a lot of people off guard and then the weather didn't help. But, January seems to be off to a good start. It's normally slow but we're off to a good start," Bryant emphasized.

THE BAKERY BUSINESS seemed to catch up with 2000. At least that was the assessment of Harry Sherman, owner of Brenner's Bakery in Belle View Shopping Center. "It was back to normal. Therefore, a good year," he maintained.

These reactions were all in stark contrast to the major chain stores. In the case of Wal Mart, Lowes, and others, the stock answer was "check with our corporate offices. We are not allowed to give out any information on sales." Those offices supplied no definitive information, just broad generalities.

It seems that Ben Vennell's axiom was right on point. The fact that many of the major retailers were cutting both their inventories and prices, well in advance of the buying peak, were definitely to his, and his compatriots, advantage. It made their day.