Santa's Still Welcome, But the Christmas Attic is Diversifying

Apr 24, 2012

A lot of small business owners will tell you that they started their business because they found a niche market that wasn’t being fulfilled.

But what if your niche revolves around only one day of the year?

That was the case with the Christmas Attic, in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. A recent Washington Post story explains how the small business has slowly diversified its offerings.

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’re actually familiar with the Christmas Attic. We interviewed co-owner Fay Hobbs-Carter for our January 2009 cover story. Back then, even before Obamacare, Hobbs-Carter said she had stopped providing health insurance for her 20 employees because the few plans that were available were cost prohibitive. "We've paid for plans entirely, we've shared the costs with employees, we've done all kinds of things, but it's just too expensive," Hobbs-Carter said then.

Unfortunately, the Christmas Attic struggled further during the height of the recession, according to this Washington Post story, which interviewed Hobbs-Carter’s sister, Cheri Hennessey.

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.

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.

But now, the Christmas Attic is staging a comeback, in part because they’re taking advantage of opportunities and gaps in the marketplace.

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. 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.

Hennessey also held a relaunch event to introduce customers to the new offerings, redesigned her website, printed double-sided brochures that show both Attics, and is having a new sign made touting both Attics.

And our cover girl Hobbs-Carter has a new role at the store: international shopper:

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. 

So far, the diversification plan seems to be working:

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. 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.

We’re inspired by these two women business owners and wish them the best of luck. 

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