Alexandria small businesses put the merry in Christmas shopping | Crain's Washington D.C.

Alexandria small businesses put the merry in Christmas shopping

Shoppers enjoy refreshments at Red Barn's holiday season kickoff event Nov. 2. | Photo by Joy Bythrow of Gilded Gatherings

Nothing says the holidays are coming like a good discount. The 50 small retailers in Old Town Alexandria are banding together on Black Friday to offer 30 percent discounts across the board from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., with 20 percent off from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 10 percent off the rest of the day, to get shoppers into the holiday buying mood.

But they’re not waiting for what used to be considered the biggest shopping day of the year. Instead, several already have kicked off the holiday buying frenzy with major events at their stores. They are among the small retailers nationwide who are getting creative to lure customers through their doors to compete with bigger stores and major online operations.

The National Retail Federation is predicting an uptick in holiday spending this year, since there’s an extra weekend compared to last year. Katherine Cullen, director of retail and consumer insight, said sales for everything from gifts to food are expected to increase, and small businesses can take advantage of that—both online and in stores.

“Online and some trends shaping retail are positive for small businesses,” Cullen said. “With online, local and small businesses have a much bigger reach than in the past. Three of five small businesses are online businesses. Many of the others have an online e-commerce presence that allows them to reach customers who are not around their stores.

“What we’re seeing in innovation and transformation is actually positive for the industry.”

Cullen noted an advantage that small, local businesses have over giant retailers is their proximity to their customers, meaning they’re positioned perfectly to take advantage of the desire for same-day delivery.

But for most retailers, getting boots in the door is the priority. Amy Rutherford, owner of Red Barn Mercantile in Old Town Alexandria, is hoping to draw customers with nine Christmas trees “dripping with ornaments” in her 1,500-square-foot store. She also held a party attended by more than 100 people.

“It’s our annual holiday unveiling. We paper the windows and close the doors [for a couple of days] and create a Christmas forest. I don’t think I can top this year’s. There wasn’t room for another tree,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said sales were brisk for the party: “We had 90-something receipts—not everybody buys something. We were very happy.”

Red Barn Mercantile opened its doors in September 2007, offering both antiques and new furniture, along with design services. Along the way Rutherford added gifts, kitchen and bath items, and stationery. The stationery, in fact, became such a large part of the business, “I ran out of room,” Rutherford said, leading to her second store Penny Post, which opened last September just down the street.

Rutherford said small businesses like hers have an advantage over e-tailers and big box stores.

“We bring a sense of community to our stores,” said Rutherford, who lives 10 minutes away from her shop. “We create events and make it entertainment to shop. It’s no longer just transactional.”

Rutherford has several more events scheduled for this season, including holiday postcard pop-ups on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 25, and at the annual boat show, Dec. 2. Three types of postcards will include a preaddressed one kids can fill out for Santa and drop into a giant mailbox. Rutherford’s fellow retailers will stock postcards on which people can compile their wish lists as they make the rounds and then give or mail to friends—“or we’ll mail it,” Rutherford said.

The third postcard leaves it up to shoppers to fill in the rest of the sentence beginning with, “All I want for Christmas ...”  

Fellow Old Town Alexandria retailer Jennifer Desiderio of 116 King has a different approach. Her store serves as a venue for pop-ups, showcasing about three dozen online and small vendors seasonally. 116 King opens in March and closes in September, then reopens in October and closes Dec. 31. This season’s opening was Oct. 26, just in time for trick-or-treating.

“Our big goal is to give people the opportunity to touch and feel products. This is helping online businesses get a bricks-and-mortar feel,” said Desiderio, a former fashion rep, who launched the venue about three years ago. “Last year we did 15 or 16 different events [during the holiday shopping season.] This year we decided to add layers instead of it just being sales.”

Desiderio has scheduled a Wellness Sunday for Dec. 10, featuring an organic skincare line and barre classes for moms and children. In addition to the vendors who contract for space for the whole season, Desiderio schedules trunk shows that last two to three days, usually for clothing and jewelry. Local interior design firm Ivy Lane set up a pop-up at the back of the store Nov. 17 that will run through the end of the season, offering home décor and gifts.

“It’s all authentic stuff from small, emerging designers and brands,” Desiderio said, noting that nothing is mass produced.

Right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, Desiderio also schedules a flower pop-up for people who don’t want traditional arrangements. There are also painting classes, “which always sell out,” she said.

Danielle Romanetti of Fibre Space, a knitting and craft store in the area, held a Wool Immersion Weekend Nov. 9-12 featuring workshops at both her store and at the historic Lloyd House and the Lyceum.

“This is our busy season,” said Romanetti, who has been in business for eight years and is on her third storefront. During the holiday season she also partners with Project Knitwell, a charity that teaches knitting for stress relief to parents waiting for an infant to come out of the neonatal intensive care unit and people undergoing cancer treatment, among others.

“They’re bringing knitting to people who need it most,” she said. On Charity Tuesday, the Tuesday after Black Friday, she donates 20 percent of profits to Project Knitwell. Last year, that amounted to $500.

Romanetti also has created a $150 gift bag for her customers. The six items it contains are sourced from small, independent companies, most of them two or three-person operations. All the items are American made. The items are packed into project bags—this year’s feature a snowman and red-plaid bottom—that can be ordered ahead of time for pickup on Small Business Saturday or thereafter. Only 50 will be available.

While the holiday shopping season is already in full swing in Alexandria, the community has big plans for the weekend after Thanksgiving.

As part of Alternative Black Friday, on Nov. 24, independent retailers in the area will offer one-of-a-kind deals on everything from gourmet food to gifts for Fido, starting at 6 a.m. The day will be capped by a tree-lighting ceremony at 6 p.m. at Market Square.

New additions this year to Alexandria’s Small Business Saturday include free metered parking and a “Santa Stroll” down King Street beginning at 11 a.m. Playing bagpipes, Santa will lead the way to Hooray for Books!, where those with reservations can pose for photos between 12 and 3 p.m. Live music, caroling and free gift-wrapping are also in the works.

The following Sunday, 10 Alexandria museum stores will take part for the first time in Museum Store Sunday, offering unique and historically inspired gifts along with special offers and refreshments.

November 17, 2017 - 1:09pm