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Holiday Opener Yields Mixed Results

Loyal customers help some independent shops weather tough times.

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Shoppers swarmed Tysons Corner Mall in McLean Nov. 28, the day after Thanksgiving.

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Maison Du Vin owner Vital Hiek and general manager John Fitler said sales are up at their Great Falls wine store.

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Crowds crammed into the eatery at the Springfield Mall in the days following Thanksgiving.

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Crowds crammed into the eatery at the Springfield Mall in the days following Thanksgiving.

George Adeler’s specialty jewelry shop in Great Falls experienced a "traumatic slow down" in October so it was quite the surprise when sales surged in November.

"Right now, I am in an upswing. This November’s sales are ahead of last year’s," said the independent business owner whose store, Adeler Jewelers, focuses on one-of-a-kind and custom-made items. He designed more than 95 percent of the jewelry on display in his small showroom. His shop has a track record of doing well in times of uncertainty.

When people are unsure of the future, they focus on their loved ones. They are more likely to buy a personalized necklace than, lets say, a plasma television, said Adeler.

"One of my best Christmases was the one after 9/11. People wanted to express their emotions," he said.

<b>OTHER FACTORS</b> may allow Adeler’s business to flourish when others appear to be struggling.

Even in tough economic times, Adeler’s customers are also the people who still have money to spend. Most live within an hour’s drive of the store and are from the "upper end," of the income spectrum, he said.

The jeweler has been around for 30 years and has an established, loyal customer base.

"Eighty percent of my clientele goes back with me more than 10 years. My goal is to maintain relationships. That is part of why I do well in moments of distress, " said Adeler.

<b>A FEW</b> other Fairfax County stores that reported positive returns at the start of the holiday season share these characteristics with Adeler Jewelers.

Davelle, a locally owned store in the Reston Town Center, has seen only a slight downturn in revenue. The clothing shop, which opened 17 years ago, specializes in upscale and custom-made suits and sees a lot of repeat customers.

"We serve upscale professionals. … Most of our new business is referral," said Marc Soules, the company’s chief operating officer.

The Fairfax Surf Shop, which opened in the City of Fairfax 32 years ago, also had steady sales in the weekend following Thanksgiving. The store focuses on skiing and snowboarding equipment and clothing.

"We were kind of afraid of that at first, but [the economic downturn] doesn’t really seem to be affecting us that badly," said Kevin Hughes, an employee.

South Moon Under, a regionally owned upscale clothing chain at the Reston Town Center, and Maison Du Vin, a Great Falls wine shop, also said sales were good over the weekend.

"This past week was pretty crazy. We are doing better than expected," said Vital Hiek, the wine shop owner. Hiek’s sales are up so much that he is expanding and opening a second store, called Market Cellars, in the Reston Town Center.

But some small businesses and specialty stores are also struggling in the current economy.

In a shopping center across the street from Adeler Jewelers and Maison Du Vin, another locally owned shop, BedHeaders Home, has not seen the same bump in sales. The store carries items like seasonal serving dishes, Christmas decorations and balsamic reduction salad dressings.

"Things are going really slowly," said owner Joan Barmat, about the post-Thanksgiving sales.

Games Workshop, which sells figurines used in popular science fiction and fantasy board games, did not meet its sales mark. The store in Springfield Plaza is one of about 50 in the United States and several hundred worldwide, said employee Mike Amon.

<b>DEPARTMENT</b> stores and other "big box" retail chains also account for a large portion of the local sales. Many of these national retail outlets will release detailed information about their countrywide sales later this week, but management at the local outlets appear pleased with their sales.

"We are on pace with sales from last year on black Friday," said Omar Gordon, an assistant store manager at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Tysons Corner mall.

Sales at Macy’s in the Springfield Mall were "trending very well," said floor manager Jason Monk and employees at the Home Depot across the street said sales at the home improvement super-chain were only slightly down from last year.

<b>THE COUNTY</b> and the state governments partially depend on consumer spending to pay their bills. Virginia levies a sales tax of 4 percent and Fairfax County collects an additional sales tax of 1 percent.

The county, Virginia’s largest locality, is the biggest source of sales tax revenue in the commonwealth. The state collected a little over $3.4 billion in sales tax revenue in Fairfax from April to June 2008. Henrico County was a distant second during the same time period, with $1.2 billion.

"If the economy goes sour up here, it has a dramatic effect on the rest of the state," said former Del. Vince Callahan, a McLean Republican who lead the House of Delegates budget committee for a decade before retiring last year.

Gov. Tim Kaine (D) has warned that actual sales tax revenue may not be as high as the state initially projected and that mid-year budget cuts could be coming as a result. The state will not know how much money was generated during the holiday sales until February 2009.

"This is the worst budget in at least 20 years ... I think it is safe to say that every program is going to have to be cut and programs that we have never cut are going to have to be cut," said Sen. Janet Howell (D-32), who has sat on the State Senate budget committee for 12 years.

<b>THE FAIRFAX</b> County government does not rely a great deal on the sales tax. Real estate taxes, the car tax and business and professional license fees all generate more for the county than the sales tax, according to Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), chair of the county’s budget committee.

Still, the county is worried about the downward trend they have seen in sales tax revenue.

"It is not one of our primary sources of revenue but it is an indicator of how other things are doing," said Bulova.

The drop off in sales statewide also could profoundly impact Fairfax County Public Schools.

The school system anticipated receiving about 7.2 percent of its budget, or $155 million, in sales tax revenue from the state this year.

After Kaine warned of a downturn in consumer spending, school officials reduced the amount of sales tax money they had included in the system’s budget by $5.5 million. Even if sales hold steady for the coming year, the school system could still be facing as much as a $220 million shortfall.

"Every dime is a concern these days," said Paul Regnier, schools spokesperson.