Small retailers work hard to survive on Vashon

Competition and thin profit margins make it especially tough for some.

Violet Locati

Competition and thin profit margins make it especially tough for some.

The world will change at one of Vashon’s small centers of commerce this weekend, when two stores — Reliable Wines and Macrina’s Bakery — close their doors.

Across the street, McFeed’s, at one time the anchor of what’s called Vashon Center, folded a few weeks ago.

Other changes, too, are in the air at this busy intersection. Soon, Chilkat Trader, an antique store, will move across the street, occupying the McFeed’s building, and the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie is expected to expand into the space Chilkat Trader occupies.

If ever there were a microcosm of the vicissitudes of Vashon’s retail business world, this would seem to be it: In the course of a month or so, three businesses will have closed at Vashon Center, one will have moved and another will have begun an expansion.

To those paying attention, it underscores how tricky it is to successfully operate a retail business on Vashon these days — and the fact that some, due to luck, skill or sheer tenacity, find a way to survive.

“I think these are tougher economic times,” said restaurateur Melinda Sontgerath, president of the Island’s Chamber of Commerce.

Bettie Edwards, who has operated The Little House for 31 years, agreed.

“It seems more intense right now,” she said of the struggles small retail businesses are facing. “Everybody’s being a little cautious. Everyone’s watching what they have to spend.”

But the ups and downs are also normal in a community the size of Vashon’s, they added.

“If you take a snapshot of any community, you’re going to see this,” Sontgerath said. “You’re going to see businesses coming and going. And I don’t think all businesses are struggling. Some of the businesses on Vashon have had the best numbers this summer that they’ve ever had.”

The changes, of course, aren’t limited to Vashon Center. A handful of retail outfits are also for sale in Vashon town, including The Vashon Tea Shop, Zanzibar Chocolates, The Rock Island Pub & Pizza and Flash Photo.

Others have recently changed hands, such as Zoomies. And Splash Seafood Bar and Market recently closed, while Sea Breeze owner George Page has opened a European-style “boucherie” in its place.

No one trend explains the ups and downs, observers said. As real estate agent Jean Bosch noted, “Each one is its own story.”

But those who are in the trenches day in and day out say those who thrive — or at least survive — do so in part because of their hands-on commitment to their store and its merchandise. And many struggle, they said, because of competition from the big stores — both on and off the Island — that can offer more selection at lower prices.

The issue, some merchants say, comes down to Islanders and their shopping habits. Many have grown accustomed to the convenience of one-stop shopping, and for all the talk about buying locally, Islanders don’t spend much money shopping at the small, mom-and-pop-styled shops on the Island, some retailers assert.

Melody Trottier-Pearce, the owner of Chilkat Trader, said about half of her customers are off-Islanders — tourists and day-trippers who are drawn to her eclectic store as they pass by on the highway. Islanders, she added, aren’t very materialistic and don’t seem to spend much money.

“If you own a business on the Island, I think you have to work twice as hard than if you weren’t on the Island,” she added, noting that she sometimes considers moving her shop to West Seattle.

Edwards, whose small gift store is one of the longest-running retail establishments on Vashon, concurred.

“If you don’t put air in the tire of the bicycle, you can’t ride the bicycle. If you don’t support the business community, you’re not going to have a strong business community,” she said.

A champion of local retail outfits, Edwards added that she hates to see small shops close.

“It breaks my heart to see Macrina’s go. It breaks my heart to see Reliable go,” she said.

Retail operators say other issues make the going tough on Vashon. Parking is limited in Vashon town, Edwards noted. Help can be hard to find, some said.

But the biggest struggle, some shop owners say, is the formidable competition they face from big stores — from Costco and Fred Meyer to Vashon’s own Thriftway, a store, some said, that is often vigorous in its competitiveness.

Roy McMakin and Mike Jacobs, the owners of Reliable Wines, said they knew going into the wine retail business they’d face stiff competition from Thriftway. As a result, they said, they deliberately chose wines Thriftway didn’t carry — only to find the grocery store carrying those very same wines weeks later, priced a dollar or two less than theirs.

“They look at what’s going on and at people’s inventory and have no hesitation going head to head with them on individual products and underpricing them,” Jacobs said.

Susan Bassett, owner of The Vashon Tea Shop, said she saw a similar trend: When she started carrying fudge, Thriftway’s deli began offering the very same fudge; when she offered quiche, so did Thriftway.

“I talked to the manager about it, and he said, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose customers. When they ask for something, we provide it,’” Bassett said. “They don’t think about the other businesses.”

The perception of this trend is widely shared, McMakin added.

“I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had about this since I’ve told people the wine store is closing,” he said.

“Vashon has an excellent grocery store in Thriftway. It’s a wonderful thing,” he added. “But there is a price to the Island.”

Norm Mathews, Thriftway’s owner, said it’s not true that Thriftway goes out of its way to underprice items other small shops carry or to take over the niches they attempt to develop. And to the degree that it seems that way, he added, it’s likely because of Thriftway’s response to the sales representatives who stop by the store peddling a new product.

“We just don’t have time to go out into the community and source all those things,” he said. “If we happen to carry something someone else carries, it’s not because we’re vindictive. It’s because it’s out there, and a salesperson says, ‘Here’s something that’s good, and you should try it.’”

It’s also just the way of business, he added, noting that after Thriftway opened its espresso stand, six others opened up on the Island.

“I guess we could complain about that, but it’s part of being in the commercial world,” Mathews said.

Other retailers concurred, noting that Thriftway is following a retail trend among grocery stores; increasingly, they’re expanding and diversifying, moving towards providing a full-service shopping experience for their customers.

Sontgerath, for instance, noted that shortly after she opened her seafood market, Thriftway expanded its seafood section. Yet, she added, she can’t “fault them in any way” for what she called the store’s commitment to growth and service.

“They’re striving to provide great quality in everything they do,” she said. “Don’t we want our grocery stores to be fantastic in every way? I do.”

Edwards said she has talked to Mathews from time to time about these issues, but added that she also has enormous respect for him, his contributions to the community and his savvy as a businessman.

“Norm, like the rest of us, is trying to keep current with what’s happening in his industry,” she said. “He’s doing what others are doing in his industry. … Unfortunately, for us as merchants, it’s really hard.”

Meanwhile, even as many retail shops struggle on Vashon, some say there is a recipe for success: As Priscilla Schleigh Kimmel, owner of Giraffe, put it, it takes a positive attitude, long hours and a willingness to throw yourself into your work.

That’s what she’s done, she said, in part because she’s passionate about the fair-trade, artisan-made crafts that she sells.

“I have people who say, ‘Why did you open your shop on Vashon? You could make a lot more money in Seattle.’ I say, ‘This is where I live. I couldn’t ask for a better life.’

I’ve done mall hours in the past,” she added, “and believe me, it’s not a walk in the park.”

Kimmel, whose store did better this summer than last, said she works six to seven days a week and is a near-constant presence in her shop. That, too, makes a difference on Vashon.

“In a town this small, it’s the personalities that make a difference. When the owners are hands-on, you’re shopping with your neighbor,” she said. “People know me.”

But ultimately, Jacobs from Reliable Wines said, consumers will make the difference, voting with their feet and their pocketbook about what kind of retail landscape they want to see on the Island.

“It’s really up to the consumer to decide whether they’re going to commit to having small businesses,” he said. “That’s the only way small businesses are going to happen on the Island — is if people support them.”