Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Economic downturn's effect on smaller Northern Virginia, Fairfax and Loudoun Businesses

After speaking recently with a Bank Branch Manager about the effects of the current economy's downturn on her business (she was actually experiencing a sharp uptick in new small, home-based business accounts), we decided to check in with some other Northern Virginia, Loudoun County and Fairfax businesses for their insight - as a bit of a barometer reflecting and perhaps forecasting many of our own family and business financial and spending decisions to come this Spring.

We asked:

1 - Is the economic downturn affecting your Northern Virginia Business?
2 - Do you see differences between Loudoun and Fairfax County, in terms of customer demand for your services?
3 - Do you see any differences in your customer's spending or participation habits, possibly between men and women?

(All quotes are edited for readability)

Khalid Umerani owns the local NOVA Insurance Group in Chantilly, VA, and provides Northern Virginia home insurance, auto insurance, life insurance and business insurance to residents of Chantilly, Ashburn, South Riding, Brambleton, Stone Ridge and other western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun clients. He responds:

"We see many more indicators of family financial stress, including late payments, cancellations, policy reinstatements or re-writes; insurance payments tend to be prioritize lower than critical bills such as mortgage or car payments. The scope of personal insurance coverage is suffering, as well, with some folks reducing or eliminating coverages, or increasing deductibles to lower monthly premiums. This sort of activity tends to increases a family's financial risk profile, and simply adds to the overall negative effects of the economy. On the other hand, life continues, the region is still growing, and the overall demand for flexible, reasonable insurance services in touch with local context is remaining fairly reliable".

Hulya Aksu is owner and publisher of the Modern Loudoun Mom Magazine in Northern Virginia's Loudoun County, Ashburn. Modern Loudoun Mom Magazine is the only "social media magazine" of its kind, offering user-generated website and printed content for modern women and Moms across a variety of topics, including Spa, restaurant and private school reviews, shopping and health information, family events and offline social meetups. She remarks:

"Yes, there has been a slow down in some industries around Northern Virginia. However, advertising is crucial for most businesses and we have remained consistent in our growth. Loudoun in particular is less established, as most businesses are young or new. Having a multi platform media outlet that has a tightly focused target market, such as Modern Mom, is a much needed resource here in Loudoun. Fairfax also lacks in a publications that hyper-locally cater to moms. Fairfax also has a geographical span that cannot be compared to LC. It is an older area with more established social unities. We are approaching both counties differently but are finding many similarities. Moms are moms everywhere. We have both men and women as clients and there are differences. Women tend to also be our readers, believe in a long term commitment and value the savings they receive. Men are more likely to try it once and wait and see. Even if it means they pay more. It is very interesting. Women commit, men try..."

Ingrid Myers, Realtor is one of Northern Virginia's most experienced and long-time Realtors, having offered real estate services in this area for over 20 years. She focuses in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. She says:

"Obviously it's easy to point to the Real Estate industry's slowdown, and know that many realtors, mortgage bankers and all the other Northern Virginia Real Estate service providers are suffering loss of business and revenue. But, it's part of the natural contraction and expansion that affects the overall economy in regular cycles, albeit this time with higher highs and lower lows. Consistent provision of superior customer services, a long track record with a deep referral and partner base, and leverage of critical tools such as Internet Marketing and Social Media Optimization all will help seasoned professionals in this business."

Steve Baker is the owner of National Security Screens, a local provider of alarm screens, window and door security and other home security system services. He adds:

"Like other "nice-to-haves", new home security technology is one of the first services or purchases to be passed over in favor of core family expenses like gas, food, housing. It's like cable TV - many feel it's helpful and enjoyable, but can be done without. On the other hand, economic anxiety tends also to drive up the awareness of security exposure, especially with children - and we actually see some stabilization in sales after an initial downturn. It's a delicate psychological balance - financial vs. physical security. However, our alarm screens are also a means to achieve both security and environmental cost efficiencies - instead of keeping windows closed all the time with air conditioning turned up, especially overnight (fearing a security breach), windows can be left opened for natural cooling in confidence that an alarm will indicate intruders."

We also spoke with Paulo Trindade, of Grow Landscapes, a leading provider of Northern Virginia landscaping, garden design, patios and fencing services located in Falls Church. His feedback:

"The recent slowdown in the local housing market has affected the types of jobs we are doing. With so many homes on the market it is more important than ever to have great looking curb appeal. We are currently doing more front yard renovations just prior to homes being put on the market. Recently a long time client had us landscape her front yard including a more inviting walkway to the front door and all new perennial garden. Not only was the increase in the home's value estimated at ten percent, but the house sold in less than a week.

The homes in Fairfax tend to be older with more mature plantings already in place. We tend to be pulling out old landscaping or designing around large trees and structures already in place. The challenge in Loudoun tends to be the opposite. So many of the homes in Loudoun are new construction there tends to be very little in the way of existing plantings or structure. Often times in Loudoun the goal is to provide privacy from neighbors and create a more established feeling around the home. Both areas provide great opportunities to be creative and really design something that adds to the homeowner's quality of life and a more enjoyable space around their home.

You might expect women to be more interested in flowers and plants while men focus on things like grills and fire pits but this is not necessarily true. Northern Virginia has such a well educated population that we tend to have clients who are equally interested in all aspects of a project. I am very often impressed by how much thought and research clients have put in to a project before even calling us. It often makes for a very collaborative environment that is a pleasure to work in. Right now the group that really seems to be focusing on customizing their environment to their needs and tastes is the baby boom generation. There really seems to be an emphasis on creating spaces that function both as personal refuge and a place for enjoying family and friends."

Our last conversation was with Kirsten Santucci, representing Ashburn's House Doctors, offering handyman services, home repair, renovation and remodeling, residential additions and commercial maintenance services.

"We're definitely affected by the economic downturn, as the cause of this downturn is being attributed mostly to the burst of the housing bubble and we're in the home repairs and improvements industry. However, in business, it's important to take your cues from the market, and then be flexible and adjust your strategy based on those cues. Anything short of that can mean death to a small business. For example, with the sale of new homes having sharply declined, it makes sense to de-emphasize some of our marketing efforts on new homeowners and focus our strategy on other customer segments. Regarding men and women, I don't think it will come as a big surprise that in our experience, the majority of women are the decision-makers when it comes to home repairs or improvements."

Altogether, while the economy and consumer spending is still on a negative trend, well-positioned businesses with solid credentials, unique core offerings and a mixed portfolio of service offerings seem to be weathering the storm for right now.

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