Island merchants hope to buck the trends

Karen Gale and her son Grayson shop for hats at the Country Store & Gardens. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Karen Gale and her son Grayson shop for hats at the Country Store & Gardens.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Vy Biel, longtime owner of the Country Store & Gardens, had never before felt the pinch of economic downturns in her 45 years in business. This year is different.

“We’ve never seen it this bad,” she said.

She’s not holding major sales to compete with off-Island stores, she said, and luckily has a thriving mail-order and online business of her own to stave off competition from other retail Web sites. Still, in a store with a plethora of products — from locally minded books to gourmet foods to weather-appropriate clothes — she’s concerned that this holiday season is the start of the country’s next depression.

“I bet I’m the only (business) person on the Island who has been through two depressions,” she said.

Though predictions for holiday retail sales are grim this year, Vashon’s merchants seem to be putting on a resolute face and relying on their loyal Island customers to pull them through the sluggish season.

Some say sales aren’t any slower than they were a year ago, while others report this is the worst holiday season they’ve seen as a merchant. However, none report taking drastic actions to ensure customers come to their establishments rather than shop online or off-Island.

“It’s tight for everybody,” said Melinda Sontgerath, president of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce and owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant. “I think everybody gets to the end of the month, and it’s just tight. There’s not much money left over for any of us, unfortunately.”

Vashon retailers face the same financial pressures as others nationwide, she said, as well as the ever-present fear that Islanders won’t spend their holiday dollars on Vashon.

“The unique concern on Vashon is just seeing our own residents going off-Island to purchase or eat,” Sontgerath said. “I think everybody’s very optimistic — trying to put on an ‘If you think it is, it is,’ attitude.”

If Islanders keep their dollars on Vashon — as many retailers believe they will — Island businesses may go against the National Retail Federation’s projection that this will be the worst holiday season in six years. Many Islanders appreciate the personal and friendly nature of Vashon shops, where they are often known by name, and gift-wrapping never costs extra.

“I’m hearing a lot that people are willing to spend the money here because they know where it’s going,” said Rose Cecchini at Northwest Sports. Her partner Dave Page has owned and operated the store for 16 years.

Several retailers agreed that customer loyalty and community ties are what keep their stores open.

“We’ve been getting a tremendous amount of support from the community,” said Eugenie Mirfin, co-owner of Kronos. “Each year, more and more people seem to shop on the Island as we have more stores and more services. I think people are making more of a concerted effort.”

And though some stores, including Vashon True Value Hardware, are holding holiday sales, Island business owners concur that they simply can’t hold the enormous sales that bigger stores are known for this time of year.

True Value holds the same holiday sales each year, said owner John Yates, and though the store’s not doing as well as it did last year, he doesn’t plan to change his sales tactics, he said.

Things are slower at Vashon Pharmacy as well, a store that since 1950 has been a one-stop shopping destination for some, said co-owner Tom Langland.

“We’re glad we have as much variety as we do,” he said.

He said he’s discounted a few holiday favorites, such as sheepskin slippers, but won’t cut prices extensively.

“No, we won’t be slashing prices storewide; we’re not doing anything exceptional,” said Langland, who with Dave Willingham has co-owned Vashon Pharmacy since 1991. “This won’t be a record-breaking year, and we’re OK with that.”

But with small profit margins and lethargic sales, some business owners are anxious about their futures.

“We have a lot of great things available to people, just nobody coming in,” said Tami Renno, co-owner of Island Thyme. “We’ll bend over backwards to help anybody get what they need.”

She said her business is not doing as well as she’d hoped.

December is a time of year when Island Thyme’s shelves are typically stuffed with merchandise, but she’s held off on re-ordering certain items because of the slump in sales.

Co-owner Shelly Davis said they stopped carrying certain perishable items the store imports from England because they weren’t selling quickly enough.

“We’ve had to throw away so much we had to stop ordering it,” she said.

And though the duo have been disappointed with their season so far, they’re hoping Islanders are simply getting a late start on shopping.

“Our prices are just as good if not sometimes better than Macy’s and Target, and yet we carry the unusual items you can’t find anywhere else,” Renno said.

Sontgerath said business owners are reaching out to give their customers — who in many cases are also their neighbors, friends or activity partners — what they want.

“I think people are happy to shop on Vashon if they can find what they need,” she said. “They won’t just come here because we’re here. They will come here because we’re doing something great.”

Eva DeLoach, owner of Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie and Minglement, said keeping money local helps the community thrive.

“The truth is, our economy is in trouble, and all of us need to help each other and support each other to weather these times,” she said. “Does Costco or Trader Joe’s contribute to this community? No. Does Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie? Yes.”

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