By Anna Harris (File photo)
Though Congress lumbered toward a deal to end the government shutdown Wednesday, Alexandria’s businesses and residents already have felt the fallout from the crisis, though in a few unexpected ways.
To start, many local businesses have seen an unanticipated boost in customer traffic. Megan Lemieux, a sales associate with Lavender Moon Cupcakery, said that the shop has seen a subtle uptick in visitors.
“In the beginning it did slow down,” she said. “But as the week went on, business started to pick up because groups [of people] would come in with nothing else to do.”
However, she’s less optimistic about customer turnout if the government shutdown drags on. Furloughed workers might have more time to spend but fewer dollars at their disposal.
It’s a phenomenon that business owner Ben Wegdam already has seen firsthand. Wegdam, owner of the Lou Lou boutique in Old Town, said his store had the same increase in traffic as Lavender Moon Cupcakery, but it didn’t carry over into sales.
“People are spending time, but they’re not spending [money],” he said. “People are wandering the shops looking but not taking out their wallets to buy stuff.”
And because many monuments are closed, he believes businesses are losing out on sales normally made by tourists visiting the region.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Responding to rising concerns in the business community, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosted a roundtable discussion on the shutdown Tuesday. Business owners and federal contractors discussed options and strategies to cope with the difficult time.
Ensuring that customers affected by the furlough feel that owners empathize with their plight was a reoccurring theme. Offering deals for government workers relieves a bit of purchase anxiety and gives consumers a sense that someone understands their situation, experts said. It also bolsters customer loyalty.
Many local shops and restaurants, though, did not wait until the roundtable to start extending deals to people affected by the shutdown. For example, Artfully Chocolate offered 25-percent off any hot chocolate or milkshake to customers with a federal ID, while Pork Barrel BBQ gave out free pulled-pork sandwiches to furloughed workers.
Experts also stressed taking advantage of the lull. Owners could use the downturn to revisit their business plans, make adjustments for the future and prioritize.
Foremost among the areas already tangibly affected by the shutdown is the city’s hospitality industry, which suffered immediate losses. According to a survey of four area hotels, 1,700 room nights have been canceled, meaning a $368,000 profit loss in just the first week of furloughs, said Patricia Washington, president and CEO of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association.
“It’s hitting hotels hard right now,” Washington said. “We’re hoping that the situation can be resolved as quickly as possible.”
Her organization is offering free “Key to the City” booklets — essentially a package of special deals to area businesses and admission to nine historic sites — to overnight visitors and furloughed workers for the duration of the shutdown.
TIME TO SPARE
As businesses grapple with lost sales, furloughed employees are trying to stay busy.
Omar Chavez, a government analyst and contracting officer, spends his free time at home or at a local Starbucks. Sitting at a table outside the coffee shop in gym shorts and jacket with a cup of joe in hand, Chavez said he just wants to go back to work.
He can’t do much with his extra time, as he could be called back for what’s deemed essential business at a moment’s notice. And it’s hard planning ahead when the government shutdown could suddenly come to an end, Chavez said.
“It’s limbo, basically,” he said. “And I’m just waiting to see when it’s over.”