To survive recession, a Christmas-only store mixes it up

April 19, 2012

At a store called the Christmas Attic in Old Town Alexandria, it’s beginning to look a lot like any day but Christmas.

After 40 years of selling exclusively ornaments and other holiday decorations, the boutique officially rebranded this week to become “two stores in one.” The yuletide trinkets now live on the second floor, and the first floor has been revamped into a gift shop called the “Urban Attic,” filled with beauty products, handbags, jewelry and other gifts.

“We’ve brought in things we’d want to buy ourselves,” said owner Cheri Hennessey. “Nice hand creme. Wine — you can’t ever have enough of that. It’s a combination of what we wanted, what we saw at trade shows and what we saw from going to other retail stores.”

For Hennessey, the decision to add in year-around goods was as much a personal choice as a business one.

Hennessey’s father, Henry Hobbs, opened it as a typical gift shop in 1971, and her mother set up a Christmas corner for fun. The Christmas products became so popular that they soon eclipsed the other inventory, and the store became the Christmas Attic officially. When her mother died five years ago, Hennessey inherited the store along with her sister, Fay Hobbs-Carter.

That’s when Hennessey began to dream of days beyond December 25.

“Fay said, ‘Do you really want to only keep selling Christmas stuff?’ And I said, ‘I want to sell books and wine,’ so that was the beginning of our branching out.”

As their sales of wine and books began to rise, the economy began to crash. Hennessey said she thought she’d be fine — thinking customers never give up Christmas — but she found that today’s shoppers aren’t as interested in the collectible ornaments that had popularized the store in the ’70s. And soon, people weren’t spending on Christmas at all.

Filling in the gaps

The store entered survival mode, cutting part-timers’ hours and even changing to LED lights to save energy. Overall, the store cut costs by 20 percent and made it through, albeit with some debt.

At the same time, Hennessey began adding more and more year-round gifts. Hobbs-Carter relocated to Egypt last year, and she began perusing North African bazaars and shipping Hennessey hand-sewn bags and metal lanterns for the store. When several of Old Town’s greeting card and book stores went out of business, the Attic picked up the slack in its product mix. Bright-colored Solmate socks became a fixture when, on a trip to California, Hennessey picked them up at a local boutique and fell in love.

“Sometimes we fill in the gaps in products, and sometimes we are the leaders,” Hennessey said.

The shop has traditionally relied on tourist traffic for the first half of the year and local holiday-shopping traffic for the second half. By becoming a more general destination, Hennessey said she thinks locals may return several times a year, rather than solely when they’re decking the halls.

Her strategy has paid off so far. This month, sales have been 14 percent higher than the same weeks last year, even though the store’s re-branding isn’t fully completed yet. (A new, wooden “Urban Attic” sign is on order.) If the growth continues, she said she hopes she can eventually stop paying for her inventory on credit cards and begin self-financing — just like they did in the Christmas Attic’s good old days.

On Saturday, Hennessey plans to hold a launch event to introduce customers to the new inventory. She printed up new brochures that show both Attics — on one each side.

“All the locals show up say, “I had no idea you had stuff other than Christmas,’” she said. “But you can come to us for your everyday gifts. You don’t have to wait until Christmas.”

Related: Christmas never ends at the Christmas Attic

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