With the end of this blazingly hot summer drawing near, I checked in with our neighborhood businesses to see how they performed as compared to last year.
According to Alexandria Chamber of Commerce member Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic, tourism in general was up for our region. Memorial Day saw six percent more people traveling here than last year, 18 percent more people traveled here for Fourth of July and 9 percent more people traveled this Labor Day than last, he said. So despite the stifling heat we experienced, the number of visitors to Alexandria should have been up.
Did that increase in foot traffic translate into increased sales for our businesses? The answer is yes and no.
The recession appears to still be affecting peoples buying decisions. They are visiting Alexandria but not buying like they have in the past. One habit of mine as I walk my pups daily on King Street is counting the shopping bags people are carrying and Ive noticed a sharp decrease from last summer.
Granted, this is not a scientific approach but AAA reports similar findings, with the number of people who were planning to shop this past holiday weekend decreasing from 53 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2010.
From June to September this year versus last year, our retail sales are flat, which I am happy about, said Cindy McCartney of Diva Boutique. Its been a year of recovering from the blizzards of January and February.
The general decrease in buying, coupled with our local parking pains in Old Town didnt make for the most favorable retail climate. Retailers believe this quarter issue (metered parking costs $1.75/hour) is directly affecting their business because it creates a barrier to people staying and shopping.
I cannot tell you how many quarters I give out, says Elizabeth Todd, owner of Shoe Hive. I get a roll every day at the bank.
And from further up King Street, My per-sale transactions are down. The number of customers coming through the door during metered hours is down. Several customers have called and stated that they could not come in at all because they didnt have quarters, said Danielle Romanetti, owner of Fibre Space on Fayette Street.
No one is happy with the parking situation right now, and the city acknowledges that the situation is untenable. City staff is working to implement a pay-by-phone system as soon as possible to provide a means to pay by credit card. And they are finally submitting a proposal for multi-space meters to City Council this month. If approved, they could be installed by the end of this year. The Chamber encourages business owners to lend their support to the proposal by contacting City Council members.
We did have some good things happen for retailers, one of which was the Sidewalk Sale held in August. The Chamber, ACVA and Potomac Riverboat Company in cooperation with the Old Town Boutique District all helped organize the day and several retailers reported it as their best sales day for the summer.
Im hearing feedback from our restaurants that overall they seem to have done a little better this summer, but some also report slow sales depending on where they are located.
From the Waterfront: We have experienced a decline in sales this summer, said Dan Kent at the Chart House. I believe that the extreme heat that we experienced in July had a lot to do with this.
To the Carlyle area: Summer was quite slow for us, said Charlie Solis of the Westin Alexandria. If it wouldnt have been for the marketing efforts of our sales force to bring travelers through our property we would have been in trouble.
Del Ray doesnt have the parking problems of Old Town, but it also appears to be a mixed environment, especially due to the recent severe storm that overwhelmed the area with downed trees and power outages. Summed up best by Nora Partlow of St. Elmos Coffee Pub, My business is definitely doing better this year. Sad to say that my best week ever was after the storm that passed here this summer brought much business loss to many of my neighborhood businesses. I was lucky not to lose power.
Despite the shifting and closing of businesses, we only have about 5 percent retail vacancy on King Street in Old Town and new businesses are here or on the way, including: Tea&Spice, Red Rocks Pizza, Dog Park, Alexandria Cupcake, Feed and Grain, Pizza Paradiso and Society Fair, all of which are located along or close to King Street.
One final, important point to make is that we need to continue to support our local businesses. With this year bringing Snowmaggedon and then a very hot, sticky and stormy summer, lets help them weather the rest of the year with a stellar holiday shopping season. We have a choice when we purchase so remember to shop and dine locally.