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Mixed Sales During Holidays

They Came, They Shopped, They Bought — Sort Of

Overall local retail merchants gave the recent holiday shopping season a "B" for better than last year. To some it proved disappointing. To others it was characterized as "terrific." Assessments were as varied as the products they offered.

"It turned out about the same as last year. I had hoped we'd be back to pre 9/11 sales but that didn't happen. It was going great until the week before Christmas then it dropped off drastically," said Stanley E. Rudy, co-owner of Wilfred Rodgers, 320 King St., Old Town Alexandria.

"But, we did sell out of several items such as the Bear Band. Maybe, it had to do with the shortened season. Christmas seemed to sneak up on a lot of people this year," he said.

Rudy also questioned the removal of the free parking in Old Town for the holiday season that had been in effect since 9/11. Meters were free after 5 p.m. and on weekends as were the city-controlled parking garages.

This year the city gave Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association approximately $125,000 to fund an area-wide advertising campaign to bring shoppers to Alexandria. This replaced the free parking which officials claimed cost the city $125,000 in lost revenue for the period in question.

Rudy's parking analogy was buttressed by Betsy Husser, manager of The Christmas Attic's House in the Country, 107 N. Fairfax St. "We had a lot of people that came in wondering about the free parking. And, the feed back on the advertising campaign was marginal. So I'm not sure giving up the parking incentive was worth it," she said.

"As for sales, we did a little better than last year. Having Santa here on the weekends helped a lot," Husser said.

HOWEVER, Bernadette Troy, owner of The Irish Walk, 415 King St., said, "It was a wonderful Christmas season. Our sales were up at least five percent."

Dottie Christiansen, a long time employee at The Irish Walk, said, "Shoppers seemed to be after just about everything, woolens, capes, jewelry, fine china and crystal. We did very well with the special Waterford pieces such as the big bowls and vases and the Belleek -- the expensive pieces. But, our special foods also do very well at Christmas."

Two of the most effusive merchants praising this year's shoppers were Jeff Albert, owner of Rugs to Riches, 116 King St., and Todd Healy, owner of Gallery LaFayette, 320 King St. "This season was really, really great. We were up 15 percent," Albert said.

Healy said his sales increased by nearly 13 percent with customers buying everything from his annual Old Town calendar to art and framing. "It was fantastic. Much better than last year and sales were pretty much across the board," he said.

On the opposite side of that analysis were the Discovery Channel Store, 118 King St., and Artcraft, 132 King St. Both Michael Thomas, manager of Discovery Channel Store, and Theoni Panagopoulos, assistant manager of Artcraft, pronounced the season "a little better" and "about the same" respectively.

"Sales went well but, in the end we were about the same as last year. Our big sellers seemed to be our clothespin figures and our metal wine holders in the form of various characters," Panagopoulos said.

At the Discovery Channel Store the big draws were "our Vectron Flying Saucer and the improved version of our Hovercraft," Thomas said. But, overall he found sales to be somewhat static.

IN THE MOUNT VERNON area, both at Belle Haven Shopping Center and Hollin Hall Shopping Center, assessments were equally mixed. Some had a better than expected holiday sales season while others saw it as improved but not a milestone.

"This was a great year. We had a superb Christmas season. Sales were up nearly 28 percent in the first 20 days of December," said Kevin Green, owner of The Virginia Florist, 1632 Belle View Boulevard.

"And, it was pretty much across the board, both in flowers and in gift items. Sales have continued strong after Christmas as well. We sold out of the antique National Highway Map. But, I've gotten more in now," Green said. "Our commercial business has also grown very well."

Another combination floral/gift shop that found this year to be "most definitely better than last year" was The Blossom Shop, 7906 Fort Hunt Road, in the Hollin Hall Shopping Center. "In addition to sales being up the staff really had fun this year," said Dorothy Trimber, owner.

In addition to selling various floral items and a wide range of gifts, Trimber also does holiday decorating for homes and businesses, both interior and exterior.

"The decorating went very well this year and many customers asked to be put on a list for next year. I had one business who had me do their entire office and we did the decorating for the Mount Vernon Nursing Center," Trimber said.

At Hollin Hall Variety Store, 7902 Fort Hunt Road, owner Charles "Ben" Vennell said, "We had a very good December. We were up five percent over 2004. We had many people come in and say the big stores had run out of light sets or other items well prior to Christmas. We had to reorder many items and I never had to do that before," Vennell said.

For The Gift Store, 7910 Fort Hunt Road, this shopping season was only "up a little bit" over 2004, according to Connie Humphrey, assistant manager. "We were probably up about five to 10 percent. Our music boxes continue to do very well every year," she said.

AT THE SOUTHERN terminus of the George Washington Memorial Parkway is the Mount Vernon Estate and The Shops at Mount Vernon. Here holiday shoppers can find not only items relating to the history of America's first president but also a range of gifts from Virginia wines to antique jewelry.

Julia A. Mosley, director of retail, Mount Vernon Estate, was somewhat disappointed with this past holiday shopping season. "It was OK. We had a terrific year up until this fall. The holiday season was only up about four percent. We expected more based on last year's holiday sales which were excellent," she said.

"I feel that people were shopping very cautiously this year. They seemed to be buying more for their homes. It was a very conservative December," Mosley said.

"Our higher priced items were selling very well such as paintings and antique jewelry. These were very much up from last year. We did notice an increase in local customers and we like seeing that," she said.

Mosley noticed a drastic increase in both her mail order and internet sales. "Internet sales were up nearly 80 percent," she said. That seemed to follow an overall national trend.

In the final analysis, it appears that the smaller specialty shops, whether located in more personal suburban strip malls or as stand alone stores in areas such as Old Town, outdid their competitors in the large malls. This also applies to sales of high end retailers as compared to the large mass marketing stores which reported a lackluster holiday sales season.

Maybe 2005 will be the year that Rudy of Wilfred Rogers will have his holiday wish fulfilled — to be back to pre 9/11 sales. There is one extra weekend this year for those last minute shoppers.