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Posted February 28, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Ward Plaza reeling
Furniture retailer cannot cushion blow, will close
By J.R. Williams -- Daily Staff Writer
WINCHESTER -- For an illustration of how the dismal economy is affecting city businesses, look no further than Ward Plaza on Valley Avenue.
Several darkened storefronts display only signs where product used to be. An old BB&T bank branch, abandoned since at least 2004, sits unmanicured on cracking asphalt. Its anchor store, Montgomery Ward, folded when the company went bankrupt in 2001.
Leah Easterday is manager of Judy's Cards and Gifts. She's watched over the years as business after business has closed or moved elsewhere: a florist, an A&N clothing store, a Radio Shack.
Judy's is now at its third location in Ward Plaza, in the former site of another bank. Besides cards, it sells unique jewelry and hand-selected wine.
It's also the city's only drive-through post office -- Easterday sells stamps and takes packages out of the old teller window and uses the vault as a storage closet.
Judy's has been a plaza tenant for 10 years, and moved into the old bank last year for cheaper rent, Easterday said. Business has been slow, but steady.
"It's not how we'd like to see it," she said.
For the moment, things aren't looking up for the shopping center. One of the plaza's larger tenants, Sofas & Seats, is liquidating its merchandise and closing up shop. Huge, bright window signs advertise a total sell-off, a bargain, a deal.
Cliff Wainwright, the store's manager for about eight years, said his location is one of 11 in the U.S. He said the store isn't in any financial trouble but decided to close before revenue started to dip into the red.
A declining economy means a declining housing market. When fewer people are buying houses, he said, fewer need furniture to fill them. Sales have slowed.
The store has been struggling with lenders as well. It's become harder to obtain credit for the merchandise, he said. And the credit squeeze is affecting his customers, too.
"People do have money, but they're basically saving right now," he said. "Two years ago, they were buying entire households" worth of furniture. Now, they're only buying enough to be comfortable, he said.
"It doesn't help when the media uses terms like 'economic catastrophe' either," he said. "Consumer confidence is shaken."
The store decided about a month ago in agreement with their corporate offices to shut down. Some of the store's six employees may take jobs elsewhere in the company, Wainwright said.
Jason Cox, a salesman at Sofas & Seats, said he's not sticking around once the sale is through. He's moving to Florida, closer to friends and where there might be better prospects.
"I'm going to hang out and enjoy life for a little while," he said.
Wainwright said the sale is going well, and the store will not close until most everything is sold. Whatever's left will be distributed to nearby locations, and then it will be gone.
But maybe not forever, he said.
"We've built a lot of very loyal clientele over the years," he said. "Sometime in the future, we'd like to be back in Winchester. Long term, things are still positive."
Contact J.R. Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org
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