Inside the eclectic and colorful Giraffe store, owner Priscilla Schleigh carefully packaged a customer’s purchase — a spruce-green tablecloth block-printed by women in Mumbai, a set of placemats handwoven in Indonesia and a bar of shea butter soap made on Vashon.
Rather than passing the fair-trade goods across the counter to a local customer, however, Schleigh put the items into a large box to be shipped to a woman in New York.
“I think she was a customer who was here one time on a vacation,” Schleigh said.
Schleigh has long thought of selling Giraffe’s international, fair-trade wares online. But it wasn’t until she recently began receiving requests from around the country for the store’s soaps and salts — unique blends made only on Vashon — that she was motivated to join a small handful of Island retailers who have taken their businesses beyond the walls of their stores.
It’s not a panacea, those who have embraced the online world admit. The technology can be complex. Managing the system is time-consuming. And the competition — especially in the face of large online retailers like Amazon.com — is still fierce.
“As far as little retailers who don’t have the big bucks for fancy technology, it’s hard to keep pace with the changes that are happening,” Schleigh said.
But Island retailers say it’s worth it. And for some, such The Country Store & Gardens, online sales have been a lifeline during the economic downturn, said Mike Lambert, the store’s manager.
Lambert took the general store’s collection of gifts and housewares online around 2000, taking advantage of the opportunity to reach a wider market. A decade later, The Country Store’s online shop offers about 1,500 items — almost everything found at the physical store — and Lambert ships several orders a day to customers from across the country.
“The last several years, (business) keeps going down,” he said. But online sales make up 25 to 30 percent of the store’s revenue.
“It really helps,” Lambert said.
Like Giraffe, some of The Country Store’s most popular online items are made locally.
“A lot of food is popular, especially the online jams,” Lambert said.
The store offers several jams and toppings made by Maury Island Farm, a company founded on Maury more than 20 years ago and now located in Kent. Another hot seller, Lambert said, is Wax Orchards’ sweet but not-so-sinful fat-free fudge sauces, made by a company that also got its start on Vashon but is now located elsewhere.
Lambert believes many customers stumble across The Country Store’s food, as well as clothing, housewares and gardening tools, by searching for the products in online search engines. He said the East Coasters who are now addicted to Maury Island jam and the other consistent business from off the Island may have kept the popular Vashon shop’s doors open in recent years.
Schleigh said she was inspired to go online in part after seeing The County Store’s success. The decision wasn’t an easy one, though.
The outgoing retailer values getting to know the people she sells to, and the idea of doing businesses with complete strangers, Schleigh said, seemed to contradict her self-proclaimed “small-town mentality.”
“I was hesitant to even do an online store because I enjoy the interaction with customers so much,” she said.
At the same time, she said, she realized that people everywhere are becoming more tech-savvy and are doing more of their shopping on the Web.
“Everyone else is in their jammies shopping, doing stuff online. I needed to get more wired,” she said.
Though she has only sold a handful of items in her first month on the Web, she hopes to see online sales eventually provide 10 to 15 percent of her revenue.
But even with only 100 of her most popular items for sale on the site, managing Giraffe’s online store with no extra staff has been no simple task, Schleigh said.
“It’s a lot of work getting things up on the site,” she said. “It takes quite a bit of time, versus throwing a price tag on it and putting it in the store.”
Though she’s pleased with Giraffe’s current site, she hopes to soon make it easier to navigate.
“You have to make it pretty easy,” she said. “I think that’s the ticket, make it as few clicks as possible.”
Anja Shive Moritz, owner of Island Quilter, has also been learning the ins and outs of operating an online store in addition to a physical one. She said online sales were what jump-started her business when she began it in her home in 2007.
“We had planned it to be an online business from the very start,” she said.
Moritz, a German native who taught herself to quilt after moving to Vashon in 2001, said she ran into so many technical problems while trying to set up an online store for Island Quilter that she initially just sold her fabric on eBay, offering up to 1,500 bolts of fabric at a time.
The decision turned out to be a good one, as those sales made up about 60 percent of Island Quilter’s total revenue, enabling her to move her shop to the heart of Vashon town in February of last year.
Moritz, who now focuses more on her physical shop, still offers about 500 bolts of fabric both on eBay and the shop’s online store, which she plans to redesign.
“For a while it was paying the rent. Right now it’s a nice addition,” she said.
Unlike other online shoppers, quilters who buy fabric online from Island Quilter usually know exactly what they’re looking for, Mortiz said. She tries to offer fabrics that are different than what other retailers have online, and she often auctions off rare or discontinued prints. Her selection attracts customers from all over the world, she said, including France, Brazil, Germany and Australia.
“Sometimes I would love to go the places my fabric goes,” Moritz said, laughing.
Moritz is careful to balance her online store with her Island one, though, holding on to fabrics she knows quilters come to Vashon specifically to buy, such as those by popular designer Kaffe Fassett.
“I don’t put any of his stuff online because I know people come from far away to find it here,” she said.