One extra shopping day and a last minute surge in the four days before Christmas saved the year for many Alexandria and Mount Vernon District merchants.
The extra money pumped into a holiday shopping promotion, in place of offering free parking, once again received negative reviews by Alexandria retailers. They could not identify any benefit from Alexandria and Convention Visitors Association's "The Gift Is Being Here" campaign and unanimously expressed support for the return of free parking for holiday shoppers.
Todd Healy, owner of Gallery Lafayette said an extremely busy last week before Christmas helped boost sales.
"But, most of the other merchants I have talked to don't feel the $125,000 put into promotion was worth it. We want the free parking returned. We want Alexandria to appear more friendly to shoppers," he said. "If the city took into consideration the detrimental effect of giving out parking tickets over the holidays more seriously more people would come into Old Town. The extra tax revenue would more than offset the money they get with the tickets and without the adverse reaction by shoppers."
Kate Schlabach, owner of Why Not, shared Healy's feelings.
"Free parking is definitely a plus. But, people don't seem to complain as much about the parking as they used to. Unfortunately, I thinks that's because there are fewer numbers of shoppers in this end of town as there used to be," she said.
Schlabach said she didn't notice any results from the promotion and that her sales were about the same as last year.
Discovery Channel Store assistant manager Michael Thomas pegged 2005 holiday shopping a little better than last year. "We sold out of Roboraptor and the massage chair, our two biggest items," Thomas said.
On the parking issue Thomas said there were plenty of complaints.
"People are very adverse to getting parking tickets which makes them want to go to areas such as malls."
As part of their holiday promotion campaign this year ACVA ran a map showing parking garages in the Old Town business district. Parking areas are also identified on the city's web site and in a flyer. It was also noted that parking fees in many city operated parking facilities are well below rates in areas such as Georgetown.
However, many of those coming into Old Town were apparently not aware of those sites and parking rates.
The holiday free parking initiative, introduced in 2001 after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was designed to bring people to Old Town to shop and enjoy other amenities, such as restaurants. It was discontinued in 2004 when the city offered ACVA a choice — free holiday parking or $125,000 for a city holiday promotion campaign.
"We can't do both," said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs, last year.
For Stanley E. Rudy, owner of Wilfred Rodgers on King Street, the last four shopping days were also a life saver.
"We turned out better than we thought was going to happen thanks to that extra Saturday this year," he said. "We did exactly what we did last year."
Donna Casey, manager of Elder Crafters of Alexandria, Inc., also felt the promotion money would be better invested in giving free parking.
"People would be much more enticed to come into Old Town and shop if they weren't concerned about getting $20 tickets," she said.
Casey said the non-profit store's shopping season went fairly well.
"We should be about the same as last year. There was no loss of business."
The Irish Walk reported a good holiday shopping season.
"Business was up approximately 10 percent. People seemed to be spending more and the weather really helped," said co-owner Bernadette Troy.
Her partner Pat Troy said it was a good Christmas.
"Better than last year. People seemed more relaxed and mostly in a good frame of mind," he said. "The city should be able to afford free parking and still help ACVA promote the season. I saw so many people getting parking tickets. It was very discouraging. After they get one their next stop is the malls."
Artcraft also reported a good season, according to assistant manager Theoni Panagopoulos.
"Our sales were very good. We were pretty much on target," she said. "But, the holiday promotion by the city didn't seem to make any difference. I would certainly prefer that they re-institute free parking for the holiday season."
Free parking was not an issue at the Shops at Mount Vernon, which has it year round.
Sales were up approximately 7 percent for December, according to Julia A. Mosely, director of retail.
"We're up about nine percent for the year which ended in November," she said. "I do think that Katrina and Rita hurt us a little. The tour groups were down a little, particularly the adult tour groups. We didn't see as many of the 50 to 65 age bracket shoppers this year. But, it's always good to see our local customers at this time of year."
At Hollin Hall Shopping Center, where there also is no parking problem, merchants proclaimed the 2005 holiday shopping season satisfactory.
"It was slow to start, but that last week before Christmas brought it back," said Deborah Bentley, owner of The Gift Store. "We met our numbers, the same as last year. Our two best sellers were the music boxes and Hardwood figurines. But, I think the fact that we carry so many different items really helps to draw in the customers," she said.
Dorothy Trimber, owner of The Blossom Shop, said that her after Christmas sales were definitely up from 2004.
"This year's Christmas shopping was a decent year. It wasn't great. Although, I picked up two new decorating clients," she said.
Charles "Ben" Vennell, owner of Hollin Hall Variety Store, Inc., called this season, "odd."
"It was not steady. The last two weeks of December sales were fluctuating day-to-day. That's very unusual," he said.
"But, our sales came in right on target. We didn't expect a real increase with all the other costs for people going up such as gasoline and heating fuels. Overall, our sales for the year should come close to last year," Vennell said.
That prediction also held for shops in Belle Haven Shopping Center. Sales there were "on target" for the 2005 holiday shopping season.
"This was the best December we've had since we opened seven years ago," said Lori Botha, owner of Keedo Clothing. "One of our best selling items was girls' holiday dresses. They are comfortable and very easy to take care of," she said. She attributed the overall sales increase to the rebirth of the shopping center, particularly the north end which had suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Isabel.
Looking ahead, in February Botha expects to introduce Australian clothing line Billabong at her store.
"It's a surf line designed to appeal to teenagers. I haven't had any clothing for that age group up to now," Botha said.
As for an actual evaluation of ACVA's "The Gift Is Being Here" promotion campaign, that will have to wait at least another month, according to CEO Jo Anne Mitchell.
"It's too early to tell until we actually know the tax income," Mitchell said.
Mark Abrials, CEO of Abrials & Partners, the advertising firm ACVA hired to create the campaign agreed that it is too soon.
"It's just too early to access any feedback," Abrials said.