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Hill Merchants Expecting a Boost

While most retailers say the holiday season is the busiest and most profitable time of the year, many merchants on Capitol Hill are still waiting for the rush to hit.

“People always ask me if Black Friday was a big day for me,” said Sarah Chellgren, owner of Plaid, located on Barracks Row at 715 Eighth St. SE. “I don’t think people were waking up that morning thinking ‘Let’s go to Capitol Hill and shop.’ I think it’s later on that people start to come here.”

The day after Thanksgiving often is referred to as Black Friday because when stores used to do accounting records by hand, red ink represented negative values (losses) and black ink represented positive values (profits). However, not every retailer was rolling in the dough on what is thought to be the busiest shopping day of the year.

Rodney Smith, owner of Capitol Hill Sporting Goods and Apparel at 727 Eighth St. SE, said the Barracks Row area is “like a ghost town” during this usually busy shopping time, up until the week before Christmas.

“Everybody thinks Black Friday helps everybody, but it doesn’t,” Smith said. “Since Thanksgiving my cash register has rang probably 10 times. It’s scary.”

In his third year on Barracks Row, Smith said his store’s biggest seller is jerseys. When Foot Locker, formerly located at 400 Eighth St. SE, closed its doors a few months ago, Smith said he thought his sales would increase. When recently looking at his books, however, Smith discovered his sales are down about 50 percent from last year.

Smith said he had thought “a mom and pop sports store would be great here” because there are a lot of community and professional sports teams. However, Smith said the retail stores are overshadowed by the area’s restaurants, and he hopes his shop can survive in the area.

Not too far away at Doolittle’s Chateau-Animaux, 224 Seventh St. SE, owner Dennis Bougault said his store is on track with sales. Bougault, who sells products on the Hill and on the Internet, said both sales are up from last year.

The Thanksgiving weekend was slow for Doolittle’s as well, which Bougault said he expected because “everyone seems to go to the malls for that weekend rather than shopping on the Hill.”

The No. 1-selling Christmas item at Doolittle’s is a handmade needlepoint stocking of all dog breeds. Also, the store commissioned an artist to create U.S. Capitol Christmas ornaments that feature all dog breeds “on a trip to our nation’s capital,” according to the store’s Web site.

“A lot of people think people in the city only have small dogs, but it’s not true,” Bougault said. “That’s the thing on Capitol Hill, we have pretty much every breed of dog imaginable and all breeds have been selling.”

Bougault said people tend to shop for their pets later on in the season, so the final weeks before Christmas are when the store tends to see the most traffic.

Pets aside, holiday sales at retail stores on the Hill seem to follow the same trend as Doolittle’s, with stores expecting to do most of their business right before Christmas.

“It doesn’t seem like too many people have started their holiday shopping yet,” said Chellgren. “I guess maybe now that it’s December and Christmas is only a few weeks away people are now sort of thinking along those lines.”

Al Shuman, co-owner of Trover Shop at 221 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, said he and the store are “recovering” from the election, which is still fresh in many shopper’s minds as Jon Stewart’s “America: The Book” is one of the hottest sellers right now. With the election not quite a distant memory, Shuman is not yet ready to think about holiday sales.

“It’s too early to start looking at holiday sales,” Shuman said. “I look at the whole month of December as sales for holiday sales.”

On the other hand, Chellgren said sales at her 14-month-old clothing store might be slightly down from last year at this time. Despite what so far has been a slow start to the holiday shopping season, she still has a handful of items that are selling well, such as packages of children’s long-sleeved T-shirts, leggings and hats, bangle watches and red thong underwear with “naughty” or “nice” written in rhinestones.

Regardless of what they are buying, the holiday season is going to have consumers shelling out cash left and right. According to CardWeb.com, which tracks and publishes information relating to all types of payment cards, Americans will charge almost $108 billion in retail purchases between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That is about 6 percent more than last year.

And there’s good news for those Hill retailers who have not yet seen the spikes in sales thanks to the holidays. CardWeb.com also reports that “the busiest full week is expected to be Dec. 13-19, when Americans should charge more than $27 billion of retail sales, or roughly one-fourth of the total sales anticipated during the holiday season.”

Retailers in the Capitol Hill area are banking on those final shopping days before Christmas.

“If I get any Christmas money, it’ll be right before Christmas just like last year,” Smith, of Capitol Hill Sporting Goods and Apparel, said. “‘If they build it, they will come’ — that doesn’t apply to everybody. As far as the little retail stores up here, we aren’t getting any of that benefit. It’s rough for me right now.”

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