Store owners seek to make August less of a 'dog' with sidewalk sale
Now in its 11th year, the MidCity Dog Days of Summer Sidewalk Sale has become a staple of the U Street and 14th Street corridors. The weekend-long event -- on tap for Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 this year -- has previously drawn upward of 10,000 people looking to snag deals at some of the city's trendiest stores or sample dishes from buzz-worthy restaurants. But once the crowds disperse, what are the lasting impacts on participating businesses?
"It's boom or bust," said Rod Glover, one of the owners of Home Rule, a home goods store, speaking about the level of foot traffic following the event. "But during Dog Days, we probably process the highest amount of sales for the whole year."
A number of the area business owners echoed Glover's sentiment: "I may get one or two consistent customers from the event, but overall it's not sustained," said Irene Whalen, owner of Zawadi, an African textiles and arts store.
The crowds may not be sustained, but interest in the area and its band of businesses has been, Glover noted. "Getting our merchandise out on the street has created more visibility. People who may not have known that we were here stumble upon us."
Glover and his business partner, Greg Link, started the sidewalk sale with five other local businesses, whose owners were all hoping to inject some life into what is traditionally one of the slowest sales months. "It was a great way to get rid of overstock and slow-selling merchandise and be able to take that money and put it into new things," said Glover, who noted that proceeds from the sale provided purchasing power at the late-summer trade shows in New York.
With the success of the sidewalk sales, more businesses have signed on year after year, bringing the current total to more than 100 stores, restaurants, theaters and galleries. Because of the growth of the event, the MidCity Business Association took over organizing and running it five years ago.
"The small-business community has gotten a lot stronger and well organized," said Natalie Avery, executive director of the organization. "Dog Days is the biggest event for our community, so we put a lot into it."
Planning for the Dog Days sale usually gets underway in late January, with a committee made up of local businesspeople overseeing the advertising and marketing of the event. Area businesses contribute anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to create the budget, which is about $10,000 this year.
Being a "scrappy" nonprofit, Avery said, limits the association's capacity to track the total sales from the Dog Days fair. But she stressed that the event has made "August rival December" in terms of sales.
Fliers and posters pepper the storefronts throughout MidCity, which stretches from Thomas Circle to Belmont Street on one end and U Street from Ninth Street to 17th Street on the other. "All of these different businesses from these different areas work together under the umbrellas of the association in a really effective way, and Dog Days demonstrates that," Avery said.
With the recession dragging down retail sales over the past two years, some area business owners say the sidewalk sale is a welcome relief. "It's been a little rough. We've had to reduce our inventory levels and cut back staff hours to weather the storm," Glover said. "Things are definitely looking better than they were."
Sak Pollert, the owner of Rice, a Thai restaurant, said these days fewer diners stop by during the week, but he has noticed a gradual pickup in sales in recent months, as has Whalen. "There is more of a willingness to [make] purchases," said the owner of Zawadi. "But certainly, there is still a long way to go."
To drive sales, the business association has undertaken a few initiatives, including getting stores to stay open later the third Thursday of each month. "It hasn't been a huge help, but any experiment is worthwhile," said Glover.
"One of the most important things for all small businesses is to continue attracting new customers and always take care of your old," he said, "And Dog Days is a great way to do that."