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Stores prep for holidays

Merchants hope tax break spurs shoppers

(Published November 19, 2001)


Staff Writer

Estella Wheeler, proprietor of Estella’s Hats at 2000 Rhode Island Ave. NE, says she anticipates no fall-off in her business as people turn to their churches for solice in times of stress. Many of her customers buy hats to wear to church-related events.

Second-hand shops and stores that sell high-end items often viewed as an investment, such as antiques and fine arts, seem to be faring best among D.C. retailers amid the uncharacteristic downturn in the city’s economy, which this time has not been sheltered from the effects of a slowed national economy due to its status as an international city and the nation’s capital.

Few local retailers, in a random survey of several of the District’s major shopping areas, have been unaffected by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some say they expect what appears to be a recent increase in sales of lower-priced items to help them recover at least somewhat from a severe drop-off in their business.

And many hope that the city government’s decision to lift the 5.75 percent sales tax on certain retail items during the 10 days following Thanksgiving – traditionally one of the busiest shopping times of the year – will further spur shoppers to spend their money in the District.

For some retailers, like Rozita Parivash, the sales tax holiday can’t come too soon – any relief is welcome. Parivash, the manager of Georgetown Fine Jewelry and Art at 1265 Wisconsin Ave. NW, said her hope is running thin.

"If we make a fourth or a fifth of [what we made] last year, we’ll be happy," she said. "It’s the reality -- people are keeping their money for major expenses" like rent and gas, instead of shopping, she said.

D.C. shoppers will be relieved of paying sales tax on clothing, footwear and accessories that cost $100 or less per item from Nov. 23-Dec. 2. Accessories that will be tax-exempt include jewelry, belts, gloves, neckties, purses and hats.

Mary Ann Gale, an employee of Second Hand Rose, a women’s resale shop at 1516 Wisconsin Ave. NW, expressed the sentiments of many D.C. merchants. Temporarily eliminating the sales tax can’t hurt and may bring people out to do holiday shopping in the District, she said.

Like many merchants, however, Gale is concerned that the tax holiday hasn’t been publicized well enough. Indeed, many merchants in the District said they weren’t even aware of it. The D.C. government has issued press releases, but news of the recently approved tax holiday has not been trumpeted. "They should be sending notices to shops," Gale said, or "only big department stores will know."

Parivash said she is not counting on the sales tax to bail out her store. This season, Parivash is happy to show customers what the store pays for its items if that will help persuade shoppers to buy them, she said. Her new sales pitch? "We better sell everything at cost. We can beat everybody’s price," she said.

Some independent shops around Capitol Hill, such as Through the Grapevine at 514 Eighth St. SE, could also use some relief. Regular business for the shop comes from selling flowers, although it also displays items "difficult to find elsewhere" on the Hill, such as unique starlights, designer candles and a body care line of beeswax products.

Owner J.K. Homer said that the upcoming season will bring the "big holidays everyone needs" and he hopes that December will help carry the shop through the sluggish sales anticipated until next year’s spring wedding season.

Like Parivash, Homer is also lowering prices on items this holiday season. Since Sept. 11, the shop’s suppliers have lowered prices in an attempt to hold on to customers, and Homer said he is "passing the savings along." For his and other independent shops in the area, "there is no big corporation" behind them, he noted. "If we don’t meet our budgets, it affects us all down the line," he said.

Homer said he encourages support for independent stores in the city’s neighborhoods, instead of going to suburban malls to get shopping "done in one swoop." Homer says supporting local shops "brings the value of the neighborhood up."

Through the Grapevine lost an estimated $50,000 of business in two weeks and went from seven employees to only three, he said. "You do what you have to do" to pay the rent and taxes, Homer said.

At some stores, the hustle and bustle continues as it was prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, but this does not mean customers are as eager to spend as they once were. Norvin Stevens said he is "pleasantly surprised" that normal levels of people are flocking to his store again. Stevens is one of three owners of Revolution Cycles at 3411 M St. NW.

"Business is off primarily with more expensive bikes," he said, "but… not as much as anticipated." Stevens said now people are primarily buying kids’ bikes, as well as mountain bikes and hybrids costing under $500. "I anticipate [sales this year] will be less [than last year]," Stevens said, adding "if we can hold our own, I would consider it to be an increase in business."

Neighboring Talin Jewelers at 3285 M St. NW is in the same boat but has less medium-sized purchases to fall back on. The nation’s economic slowdown has not stopped customers from coming into the store, but they are not as readily purchasing new items, owner Art Hallajian said.

Instead, shoppers are coming in to have their existing jewelry repaired. Hallajian said it seems that repairing customers’ jewelry, and jewelry brought to him from mall shops, is the only thing keeping his business afloat right now. He said he is praying that the holiday season will bring an increase in sales. Last year was slow for Talin Jewelers, and Hallajian expects this year will be worse.

The trend in buying cheaper items may actually increase sales in stores such as Second Hand Rose. Gale said she suspects that the "absolute sticker shock [many women have] when they walk into an ordinary retail store" will increase with the current economic decline. And it seems to her that the clientele the store has established after more than two decades in business is already sheltering the store from losing its customer base.

Stores selling expensive, hard-to-find items to private customers also seem to be doing well. David Friedman is in the antique business and says that while it "is not recession-proof," it has "less of a problem with economic downturns than other businesses." Friedman said he expects his Susquehanna Antique Company, located at 3216 O St. NW, will have an average December.

This positive outlook comes thanks to a "financially stable" customer base the business has established over the years, which is not likely to experience a "changed economic situation," he said.

"It’s not as if any of these people are going to be laid off tomorrow," Friedman said. "People who have the means do not stop wanting objects of desire."

Many of his customers are looking for a special antique item and "still don’t have their appetites quenched," Friedman said. If anything is affecting his business negatively, it is that "travel is a real factor" currently, as only about a fourth of his sales are to shoppers in the District.

Large corporations and hotels seem to be scaling down their usual spending, some of their suppliers noted, which makes them less positive about the coming season. Homer said he perceives a "slower trend in buying" by hotels and restaurants that Through the Grapevine supplies with flowers for events. After Sept. 11, "parties were not happening or were scaled down," he said. And Homer sees that trend continuing through the holiday season, as hotels and restaurants continue to have only moderate displays.

The commercial design part of La Musa’s sales, partner Amir Bamdad says, "has gone down quite a bit… about 40 percent since Sept. 11." La Musa’s employees, at 5345 Wisconsin Ave. NW, design and hand-make unique rugs for hotels and ballrooms. Luckily, due to the remaining client base of "people wanting to make their homes nicer" and the big-ticket items sold, Bamdad says, December should be a "good month" for the store as usual.

Stores that offer an escape from societal distress seem to be doing well and their proprietors expect business to stay that way throughout the holiday season. Although the managing partners of Krön Chocolatier in Mazza Gallery, at 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW, saw shop "traffic slow down through September," partner Trish Schutz emphasized that sales may even be on the increase, because "Chocolate is a comfort food."

International Visions Art Gallery at 2629 Connecticut Ave. NW in Adams Morgan is "on the upswing again," said director Tim Davis. The gallery is gearing up for its third annual Haitian art show, which "tends to [have] a lot of small work" that make good gifts patrons can "actually take right off the wall," Davis said. "People have been coming out and want to enjoy art again."

Clothes Encounters of a Second Kind, a resale clothing shop at 202 Seventh St. SE, has seen shopping and sales remain the same, said acting manager Connie Shade. However, the store has "had more consignments than we’ve had before," she said. After the attacks of Sept.11, Shade said, "people stayed home, watched TV and cleaned out their closets."

Many shopkeepers, like Sue Weisenburger, manager of Capitol Hill Art & Frame at 623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, noted that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people’s attitudes about shopping seem to "change with the news" of the day.

George Walton, owner of George’s Place, a men’s clothing store at 1001 H St. NE that has been a mainstay in the neighborhood for 42 years, echoed many merchants’ opinion that negativity in the news "makes people afraid to come out and shop."

"As the number one superpower in the world, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything," Walton said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator