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Cash Registers Ring In The Season

Local retailers hold their own against mall mania

It turned out to be the blackest "Black Friday" in recent years for most local retailers. But, will the heightened buying trend be sustained through Dec. 24? That was the question on many retail merchants' minds as the first holiday shopping weekend of ’06 came to a close.

"Friday was one of the best we've had. Sales were probably up about 15 percent. Saturday was also good but not as steady. Buyers seemed to come in waves on Saturday," said Betsy Husser, manager, of the Christmas Attic's House in the Country, 107 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria.

That upbeat assessment was buttressed by Lorri Gruner at Elder Crafters of Alexandria, Inc., 405 Cameron St. "Sales were incredible on Friday. It never let up. Saturday was up and down," she said.

A more sobering evaluation was offered by Stanley Rudy, co-owner, Wilfred-Rodgers, 320 King St. "We were about the same as last year for Black Friday. However, we saw a marked increase after 3 p.m.," Rudy said.

Being on par with last year was also noted by Marsha Wright, manager, Old Town's Pendleton Shop, 419 King St. "We did very well. Both days were about equal," she said.

The upturn Friday afternoon, as Rudy pointed out, may have been due, in part, to the reported drop off in mall customers after 1 p.m. Several analysts attributed some of that to the very early morning rush to the large department and big box stores to grab discount sales items.

They also conjectured that many of the sale coupons featured by the large retailers had a cut off time of noon or 1 p.m. When that time arrived shoppers departed for other venues.

AS ONE OF THE BUSIEST shopping days of the year, "Black Friday" is so named because it represents the day merchants count on to pull them out of the red ink, if they are experiencing slow sales, and into the black. This was particularly critical this year in both large and small stores that have been experiencing poor sales for the past six months.

Various merchants throughout Old Town Alexandria and Mount Vernon District have been dealing with lagging sales. Several have said, "We are getting lots of lookers but not many buyers." That assessment was more prevalent in Old Town where apparently tourists have been doing more looking than buying.

Interestingly, that has not been the case at The Shops at Mount Vernon. "Our sales have been on the increase throughout the Fall. They were up dramatically in October," said Julia Mosley, director of retail, Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens.

"We had a terrific Black Friday that was repeated on Saturday. We ran out of this year's annual ornament late Saturday night and had to have more shipped in. Our gift shop was up 35 percent over last year," she said.

And, this year's signature ornament, "The Sleighride," is available. "It's been our most popular ever. We plan to sell about 23,000. That's up considerably from the normal 15,000 to 18,000," Mosley said.

She is expecting the increase in overall sales to continue with the continuing Mount Vernon by Candlelight Tours on the weekends of Dec. 1, 2, 3 and 8, 9, 10. They started this past weekend. The Shops remain open on tour nights until 9 p.m.

Alexandria merchants are also hoping for an additional boost this coming weekend as Old Town fills with locals and tourist for the annual Scottish Walk celebration which officially ushers in the local holiday season. Starting on Friday night with the Taste of Scotland at Campagna Center it draws crowds into Old Town through Sunday.

Todd Healy at Gallery LaFayette, 320 King St. in Gadsby's Arcade, saw his sales jump almost 50 percent from Black Friday 2005. "Saturday was also very good. We are selling the annual calendar very quickly and we have even sold one of the original calendar drawings," Healy said.

Discovery Channel's manager, Jesse Savary, at 118 King St., found sales, "Definitely up from last year. They just kept climbing all day and into the night on Friday. Saturday was more of an up and down flow but still very good overall."

It was the consistent flow of customers on Friday that pleased most merchants. "It was very good and we came out a little better than last year. Both customers and sales were steady throughout both Friday and Saturday," said Sara Krauss, manager, Olsson's, 106 S. Union St.

THE SAME UPBEAT ATTITUDE was prevalent at the Hollin Hall Shopping Center on Fort Hunt Road in Mount Vernon District. "Friday was a very good day. Better than last year," said Doug Bentley, The Gift Store, 7910 Fort Hunt Road.

Dorothy Trimber, owner, The Blossom Shop, 7906 Fort Hunt Road, said. "We did great. As we did last year."

In Belle Haven Shopping Center, off Belle View Boulevard, both Radio Shack and Keedo children's shop pronounced the first weekend of the holiday shopping season a success. "It was constant all day on Friday," said Jason Francis, manager, Radio Shack, 1612 Belle View Boulevard.

"We had the best Black Friday and the whole weekend we've had in eight years. We did double what we did last year. It was a great weekend," exclaimed Lori Botha, owner, Keedo, 1600A Belle View Boulevard, which features children's attire and toys.

"I think a lot of it had to do with the half page ad I placed in both the Alexandria and Mount Vernon gazettes. I have never really advertised in Alexandria and I think that helped tremendously," she said.

Botha is initiating an experiment this holiday season to help women with small business ideas. She is offering free retail space, nine feet by seven feet, on a daily basis to help them promote their products or services.

Potential entrepreneurs must call Keedo at 703-768-9100 to book their space. "We are setting up tables throughout December and we hope to help a different mom every day," Botha said.

Now, comes the true test. Will the buying keep up to make it a black year? Twenty percent of all retail income is produced during the holiday season.

Will the final analysis be "Here Comes Santa Claus" or "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?" That answer will have to wait until 2007 and a look back.