Shop and celebrate locally this holiday season

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 23, 2017. Much of our celebration of the holidays over the next few months is experienced through shopping, dining and entertainment. The goal each year is to minimize stress and fill the coming weeks with… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 23, 2017.

Much of our celebration of the holidays over the next few months is experienced through shopping, dining and entertainment. The goal each year is to minimize stress and fill the coming weeks with the most enjoyable activities possible.

This year, there are even more neighborhood saround the region vying with Alexandria for shoppers and diners, but our community still compares favorably with the best of them. We are, after all, the authentic waterfront attraction whose stores, sidewalks and neighborhoods are steeped in history and distinctive character.

Our Visit Alexandria colleagues note that Alexandria was named one of America’s Top Holiday Towns by USA Today and a Top 10 Christmas Town by HGTV. They note that strolling historic King Street is like being in a real-life Dickens Village, and that throughout the city, shoppers can visit independent boutiques and chef-driven restaurants.

Rather than struggling through crowds in nondescript shopping centers, an Alexandria outing includes distinctive architecture and neighborhood character. Schedule breaks for lunch or refreshments, and imagine how many generations have shopped and dined along the same sidewalks or in the unique shopping nooks and crannies.

Your store experience is likely to be distinct, too, when you shop in genuine neighborhoods rather than in large malls or contrived town centers. In small stores, you’re more likely to be greeted when you enter, and you’ll find that the sales staff knows its stock and responds thoughtfully to questions. The prevalence of independent boutiques means you’re likely to meet the makers, get expert advice and find products curated by local owners who are often on site.

Alexandria retailers tell us that their staffs are not only more knowledgeable; they are typically more enthusiastic about working during the holiday season than their mall counterparts. Another added bonus — your gift purchases in these smaller stores are likely to be unique finds, and not something your recipients will see everywhere.

Alexandria’s “Black Friday” campaign on Nov. 24 and the “Small Business Saturday” promotion on Nov. 25 are great opportunities for all of us to make an extra effort to shop local this holiday season.

On Friday, more than 50 independent boutiques kick off the holiday season with one-of-a-kind deals. Enjoy special discounts throughout the day and stay for the Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. On Small Business Saturday, parking meters in Old Town and Del Ray will be free. There will be in-store activities, a Santa stroll on King Street, pop-up stores, surprise giveaways from an Elf Prize Patrol and holiday caroling.

The next day, visit your favorite historic Alexandria museums for the first-ever Museum Store Sunday. Find unique and historically inspired gifts with special offers, seasonal refreshments and more.

Don’t miss this opportunity to explore our local attractions, and we don’t have to limit our “shop local” focus to a few days around the holidays. We have an opportunity to support local businesses year round, and our community benefits every time we choose an independent retailer.

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It’s not too early to begin holiday planning

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 24, 2017. Holidays are a wonderful time in Alexandria. The area is especially beautiful and festive from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years and George Washington’s birthday. We have the prototypic neighborhoods and shopping streets that… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 24, 2017.

Holidays are a wonderful time in Alexandria. The area is especially beautiful and festive from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years and George Washington’s birthday. We have the prototypic neighborhoods and shopping streets that lend themselves to a holiday backdrop and spirit.

It’s never too early to start planning for the season. It’s Alexandria’s time to shine, and a critical time for retail revenue. Our colleagues at Visit Alexandria held a Holiday Planning Summit recently that incorporated a cross section of business, city government and economic development representatives. The theme of the summit was to continue building on Alexandria’s distinctive assets, attractions and charm – but also to take it up a notch for the approaching season.

Alexandria shopping districts face even stiffer competition this year from a broader variety of shopping options, and each of them are putting substantial efforts toward attracting their own shoppers and diners. Some of them are our f

Holiday Shopping in Alexandria

Photo Credit: James Cullum, courtesy ACVA

amiliar competitors but there are new venues for Alexandria to vie with. Washington D.C.’s The Wharf opens soon, billing itself as “the most exciting neighborhood in the history of the nation’s capital” and “a true waterfront destination.”

Many of our competitors have their own business improvement districts that plan, fund and oversee cohesive approaches to holiday décor, promotion and events. That coordinated approach often fashions a sophisticated holiday atmosphere and creates an appealing buzz for shoppers and diners.

Even without a central coordinator, Alexandria businesses and organizations are undertaking to work collaboratively to encourage individual merchants and business groups to up Alexandria’s holiday game with lighting, holiday designs, promotions and events. Holiday efforts are so much more spectacular when they are coordinated.

Alexandria has several things going for it. One of those is authenticity. Ours are the genuine charming neighborhoods and sidewalks where many generations have shopped and dined. Another of our strengths is our concentration of small businesses. Even while large retail chains downsize, there’s a growing appeal to shopping with small and unique, independent merchants.

There’s another trend toward experiential retail, and several of Alexandria’s merchants are regarded as destinations for their marketing and shopper experience. Hopefully, others will attain that status by refining their products or services, improving customer interaction, and upping their merchandising and marketing.

Alexandria Small Business Development Center provides specialized retail resources including store visits by retail, merchandising or food service experts; and educational programs on a variety of timely topics such as retail hiring, retail trends, and advertising on social media platforms. This fall we’ve engaged a window display and merchandising expert to guide merchants in developing their holiday decorating, lighting and merchandising strategies.

It takes extra effort to get into the spirit of the holidays in the dog days of summer, but the success of our long holiday season is worth it. As was said by that great philosopher, Roger Staubach, “It takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to have spectacular results in both business and football.”

Happy Holidays.

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The 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising

Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject… Read more »

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Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject – upcoming sessions will occur in April and May and will go into more detail of the practical steps to be taken to have impressive displays.  More information about these sessions and registration will be listed on our events page.  A brief summary of the rules follows:

Rules 1 – 3 – The Relationship Rules

  • Rule 1 – Approachability: Avoiding the Wall
  • Rule 2 – Psychological Perspective: Removing Virtual Obstacles
  • Rule 3 – Shopability: Making it Easy

Rules 4 – 11 – Practical Merchandising

  • Rule 4 – Dynamic Presentation: The Waterfall Effect
  • Rule 5 – The Golden Pyramid: Giving and Playing with Height
  • Rule 6 – Repetition: Of Color, Shape, or Item
  • Rule 7 – Graphic Use of Color: To Pop, Contrast, or Playing with Shade
  • Rule 8 – Negative Space: Finding Rest in the Void
  • Rule 9 – An Odd Rule, or the Rule of Odds: Couples can be Boring
  • Rule 10 – The Golden Rule to Understanding Visual Weight:
    • Short to Long
    • Light to Dark
    • Left to Right
  • Rule 11 – One Less Line: Avoiding Visual Noise

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Signage – Tips for Better Messaging

The City of Alexandria has asked the Alexandria SBDC to provide specialized assistance during the next year to our retail and restaurant small businesses to increase their opportunities for success. You will see several new workshops, videos and online information as we roll out this initiative. Recently, the City of Alexandria distributed new signage guidelines… Read more »

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The City of Alexandria has asked the Alexandria SBDC to provide specialized assistance during the next year to our retail and restaurant small businesses to increase their opportunities for success. You will see several new workshops, videos and online information as we roll out this initiative. Recently, the City of Alexandria distributed new signage guidelines to the retail businesses in Old Town.

To assist Alexandria’s businesses with both signage and marketing in general, the SBDC has created a new section of its website where it will curate information from subject-matter experts on open-sign-1309682_1920issues important to our Retail and Restaurant small business owners. The City’s signage brochure and the first four information pieces have been places in the repository and can be accessed at www.alexandriasbdc.org/retail-restaurant. The first four information pieces were written by Paul Williams of Idea Sandbox.  At the request of the Alexandria SBDC he also prepared a summary of Tips for Better Messaging.  Consider the following tips when developing signage for your business:

  1. Prioritize Your Messages – based on the reader’s perspective. Use headline messaging on your larger signs and smaller details on the close-up signage. Keep Signage Fresh– Replace before it gets worn, curls, lights burn out, photo colors fade, tears, or is out-of-date.
  2. Be Clear About What You Do – If your business name does not make it clear, add an icon (blow dryer, hot dog icon, diamond ring) or a second line of type (blow dry bar, gourmet hot dogs, engagement rings).
  3. Curb Appeal – Signage is only part of your presentation. Don’t neglect your window display, cleanliness of your sidewalk, front door, or building facade. Customers judge your business by its cover.
  4. Less is more! – Too many messages create confusion, not clarity. The goal of exterior signage is to bring people inside. Then, use the inside of your store and your employees to provide additional details when the customer is ready.
  5. Design Professionally – Use the right combination of colors, typefaces, lettering size, and white space for quick and clear communication.  Hire a professional –  it is an investment, not an expense.
  6. Word-of-Mouth Beats Signage– The best, most credible way to drive traffic and sales to your business is by doing the things that will make existing customers so enthusiastic they can’t resist telling others about you.
  7. Show, Don’t Tell – If you can, skip text and instead merchandise your product. A mouth-watering plated sandwich, food photography, or well-assembled outfit is worth 1,000 words.
  8. Have a Big BrandLook – You don’t need big budgets, staff, and research tools of national brands; you simply need to see what they’re doing and apply it to your business.
  9. Perceived Value – If you want customers to spend more money with you, offer a level of customer service and a store experience that makes them feel your prices are worth every dollar – and more.

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Unburden Local Small Businesses

This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 27, 2016. Frequently during an election year — at both national and local levels — we hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. In many instances, this refers to the regulations and requirements to operate these businesses. Small businesses are acutely aware… Read more »

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This post first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 27, 2016.

Unburden Small BusinessesFrequently during an election year — at both national and local levels — we hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. In many instances, this refers to the regulations and requirements to operate these businesses. Small businesses are acutely aware of the impact that compliance has on their bottom line.

In every survey of small business owners, regulatory compliance ranks at or near the top of the list of their greatest challenges. While larger corporations have specialized departments to handle such matters, it’s the small business owners who personally must try to understand and respond to these requirements. Doing so takes their focus away from their products, services and competition — the core of their operations.

Red tape and delays have particularly harmful consequences for owners at the very fragile startup stage, when their resources are thin. Entrepreneurs already are juggling many pressing concerns, and they desperately need to get their doors open to begin collecting revenue. Startup delays due to regulatory processes can be expensive, and a weak cash f low at the start may lead to failure down the road.

With elected officials and business owners on the same side of this issue, you might wonder why cutting red tape for small businesses continues to be an issue. Regulatory burdens are convoluted and complex matters — often products of outdated legislation and multiple layers of oversight. They typically were put into place with good intent and without recognition of the unintended consequences for small business owners.

Nearly everybody wants to help small businesses and agrees in theory with reducing their regulatory burden, but when specific revisions are proposed, some residents begin to fear that the floodgates will open and their protections will be eroded.

These regulatory matters are not easy to unhook, and the process of changing them does not happen overnight. But as a community, we should support the modernization of these requirements for small businesses.

Since the recession of 2008, city leadership has been particularly focused on the viability of
the small businesses that comprise such a large portion of our economy. In recent years, permitting processes have been streamlined and clarified, and City Hall has added facilitators to guide businesses through the process. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center also has developed a website checklist to help entrepreneurs better anticipate requirements and possible hurdles ahead.

This year, city staff has undertaken a complex effort to identify zoning ordinances that are costly and time-intensive for small businesses. Staffers are particularly focused on ordinances that seem excessive based on their limited community impact. These changes would also correct disparities that stem from business trends that were not anticipated when the ordinances were originally written. These changes will go a long way to supporting the growth of small business in Alexandria.

To attract successful, creative businesses to Alexandria, all of us — city officials, business leaders and residents — have work to do. We must minimize red tape and make sure every interaction with entrepreneurs is hospitable, respectful and encouraging.

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What do you mean by “Feasibility Assessment?”

Now What?
Now What? How do I turn this in to a new store?

Contemplation – Imagine you are a retailer contemplating this tenant space. Clearly, you might be asking yourself; “now what?” Suppose a few of the questions below move from unconscious reflection to conscious contemplation without ensuing answers, then assessing a project to see what is actually required could facilitate the decision making process and provide many benefits.

Resources – Landlord provided documents, previous project cost summaries, consultations with building departments, contractors, engineers and sometimes professional construction estimators are all resources informing project feasibility. The intent is to simplify, consolidate and summarize the probable scope of work, professional fees, construction costs and time that might be anticipated for a project. It is the purpose of a feasibility assessment and a highly recommended means of beginning most retail projects.

  • Do I need to build the walls?
  • Do I need to build the bathroom(s)
  • Why do I need 2 bathrooms?
  • Why do I need 2 entries?
  • Do I need to install the storefront system?
  • Can I use my own storefront design?
  • Do I need to have my own electric meter installed?
  • Do I need to install my own Air Conditioning and heating system?
  • What is the best mechanical system to use?
  • Is there water in the space?
  • What about hot water?
  • What about gas?
  • Where is the sewer?
  • How do I connect to it?
  • Will my store fit in this space?
  • Must I supply my own storefront sign?
  • Who will design it?
  • Can I design the store myself?
  • Can I turn a logo into a store design?
  • Where do I get the store fixtures?
  • What if I can’t find the exact fixtures that I need to display my products?
  • Are custom store fixtures required, if so who will design them?
  • What about lighting?
  • Who sets up the Point of Sale (POS) system and how do I hide the wires?
  • How do I accommodate the cabling and hard wiring for my computers?
  • How much can I expect to spend for all this?
  • A contractor told me he could build my store for $45/sq. ft. Should I believe him?
  • Do I need a building permit?
  • What does an architect charge?
  • Can I get this done in time to open before I must begin paying rent?
  • How do a pick a contractor?
  • Is the construction allowance from the landlord enough to build the store?
  • Does the location have enough parking?
  • What is the visibility from walk and drive by traffic?
  • Is this space a good choice for my project?
  • If I don’t take this space do I need to start all over with a new feasibility for a different location?

Please feel free start a discussion here and maybe even see some answers.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Dealing with Challenging Customers

The April Small Business Roundtable featured a lively discussion on how to deal with challenging customers. Whether it is a one-time issue or a constant complainer, all agreed that this is one of the most difficult issues of being a small business owner. Usually, you do not want to lose them as customers, but someone… Read more »

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Dealing with Challenging CustomersThe April Small Business Roundtable featured a lively discussion on how to deal with challenging customers. Whether it is a one-time issue or a constant complainer, all agreed that this is one of the most difficult issues of being a small business owner.

Usually, you do not want to lose them as customers, but someone who is dissatisfied can potentially hurt your reputation and consume so much time and energy that it affects your will to be in business. It can also pit employees against each other and destroy the potential for customer referrals, the backbone of many small businesses. After all, the satisfied customer is less likely to praise you on social media than the unhappy customer is to complain.

If you, your company, or one of your employees does something to bring on the customers annoyance, of course you apologize and take steps to make it right. However, what if the dissatisfaction is not so reasonable? The most important step to prevent frustration on your part or that of your customers is to properly set expectations. Make sure that your clients know what you do, what your processes are, and what the customers can expect from your company.

This may take some education on your part. Are things clearly spelled out on your website or other means of communicating with your customers? Don’t hide anything in the “fine print” and expect customers to find it. Be up front with what products and services you provide and what the customer is supposed to do to receive those goods or services. Some of the simple rules of civility apply – treat others as you wish to be treated, and listen to what the customer is saying. Sometimes, a customer will complain about perfectly fine service just to try to get a lower price – this is rare, but those folks can be dealt with calmly by explaining the situation.

The first thing to do when faced with a customer complaint is to find out what the customer wants – what were their expectations? Make sure to treat the customer with respect and try not to be defensive – graciousness can often de-escalate a touchy situation. Make sure that your employees are trained in what to do with an unsatisfied customer, and empower them to solve many of the problems themselves (perhaps up to a certain dollar amount).

Sometimes an unhappy customer just wants to vent – all that you have to do is listen and let them know that you hear what they are saying. You can sympathize with a situation without giving in by simply saying that you are sorry that they feel that way. If you can solve their issue and maintain a valuable relationship, do so as quickly as possible. If it will take some time, let them know the process and keep them in the loop so that they know that you value them as a customer. This assumes that you can reasonably recompense them for their trouble, and that it is important for your business to do so.

If you reach an impasse and it appears that there is nothing that you can reasonably do to satisfy that client, it may be necessary to let them go. You can do so by remaining calm and letting them know that you realize this is not working out and you may be able to refer them elsewhere. No one wants to “fire” a client, but sometimes that is the best option and it helps to have an exit strategy ready. For major issues that involve a significant payment it may be best to involve a third-party mediator to review the situation.

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Defining Goals and Values Can Reduce Workplace Stress

The January Small Business Roundtable discussion topic was advertised as “Ideas for a Healthier, Happier Workplace”. While several concepts were raised, most of the discussion centered on reducing stress. Small business owners wear so many different hats and are pulled in so many directions that the concept of “stress-free productivity” may seem unreachable. Pulling back… Read more »

The post Defining Goals and Values Can Reduce Workplace Stress appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Defining Goals and Values Can Reduce Workplace StressThe January Small Business Roundtable discussion topic was advertised as “Ideas for a Healthier, Happier Workplace”. While several concepts were raised, most of the discussion centered on reducing stress. Small business owners wear so many different hats and are pulled in so many directions that the concept of “stress-free productivity” may seem unreachable.

Pulling back and taking the time to actually think about why you are in business may be the first step. What are your goals for your business and what values are most critical to you to accomplish those goals?  What is “authentic” about your work, and is that what your customers see?

It is recommended that you focus on the one or two goals that are most important and no more than three or four values that you want to emphasize. If you can focus your actions on these essential goals and values, you will be reaching the core of your business and simplifying your message to yourself, your employees, and your customers.

Your goals and values define your corporate culture, and it is important to make sure that everyone connected with your organization is familiar with the goals and values that you have chosen. You also want everyone to be on the same page when it comes to how you are demonstrating these core attributes to your market.

The next step is connecting your goals and values to your everyday operations. Are the things that you talk about actually the things that you see and do in your business? Getting yourself and others in your organization focused on what is most critical can reduce the stress of trying to figure out what to do next or why the company is going in a particular direction.

An example of this would be an employee in a small retail clothing store. There are many tasks that the employee must complete each day: stocking the shelves and keeping the merchandise displayed in an attractive manner, completing customer transactions, responding to telephone inquiries, etc. However, let’s imagine that the store owner has made clear to the employee that the primary goal of the shop is providing the customer with specialized service that he or she cannot get at a large box store. That employee will then be able to prioritize greeting a customer in a friendly manner and taking the time to personally assist them, even if it means taking time away from other tasks, like stocking shelves. Knowing these priorities makes this decision less stressful for the employee and helps the owner meet his or her ultimate goals.

Communicating these goals and priorities is crucial to the business. Everything cannot be the top priority – there is only so much time in the day. Determining what is the most important in the long-term, and what short-term actions will lead you there, can reduce the stress to you as the business owner and to your employees.

After all, if we try to do too much all at once we often end up accomplishing nothing. It may just take some thinking about what is really important to you and your business to get close to the “stress-free productivity” that we all desire.

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