News

Island retailers report strong holiday season

By AMELIA HEAGERTY

Staff Writer

It looks like the Island’s push to buy local sank in over the holidays.

Although the 2007 holiday buying season was dismal nationwide, Vashon retailers painted a much rosier picture of their sales in November and December. Almost all reported above-average seasons, even while sales slipped nationwide.

According to the National Retail Federation, the months of November and December make up as much as 50 percent of retailers’ annual profits and sales. December’s total sales fell 0.4 percent nationwide — they usually increase in December — and overall retail sales were weaker than expected as well, leading some economists to question whether this signified the beginning of a recession.

“What’s going on economically in the rest of the country, Vashon has been pretty isolated from that so far,” said Tom Langland, co-owner of the Vashon Pharmacy. “We’re pleased with the amount of business that was done locally this year. We’re optimistic that it was a decent Christmas.”

Advocates had pushed Islanders, as Christmas approached, to buy gifts on-Island and keep Island dollars in the community. Many retailers believed this approach had worked.

“People were loyal and were dedicated, and we heard many times people say, ‘We’re trying to buy on-Island,’” said Bettie Edwards, owner of The Little House. “I feel that we had a rewarding season with exceptionally good on-Island buying.”

Edwards referred to the holiday months as a retailer’s “make it or break it season.”

She told the story of one Island family who bought a gift basket online, but when the basket arrived, the toys inside were much lower quality than the family had expected from the online image. Then they came to Edwards with an empty basket and asked her to restuff the basket with goodies from The Little House.

“They’ll never do that again — a lesson learned,” she said.

Giraffe owner Priscilla Kimmel agreed, saying Islanders appreciated quality gifts they could buy on Vashon. Her store specializes in handicrafts from around the world.

“This year more than ever there were more options for people on the Island so they didn’t have to leave,” she said. “There was a much more positive atmosphere for gift-giving.”

She attributed the success of her business to the products she sells and the relationships she has with the producers of those products in third-world countries.

“We’re very grateful to the community for supporting fair trade,” she said. “Everything’s handmade, and we have contact with the producers. They’re just real products, and they’re making a difference. It’s not just beautiful to look at, it’s also someone’s livelihood in a developing country.”

Kimmel said she did not think nationwide declines in sales had affected Vashon, nor would they, if retailers focused on providing “excellent customer service.”

Jenny Wilke, the new owner of Books by the Way, said she met all the sales benchmarks the business’ previous owner had set out for November and December.

“It was my first time, and I thought sales went really well,” she said. “We’re very thankful for all the people that bought locally.”

A particularly popular service at Books by the Way was the direct-to-home shipping service, where customers can have books sent straight from the book store to homes of friends and relatives nationwide.

Karen Barringer, co-owner of Vashon Bookshop, said many customers came into the shop and said their desired item was available on amazon.com, but they wanted to see if they could purchase the item from their local book store first.

“We had a phenomenal year; it was the best year we’ve ever had,” Barringer said. “It was exhausting and it was wonderful. This community is so supportive of its book store.”

She said she thought her store had been so successful over the holidays because of the store’s devoted customer base. While many of her customers commute to Seattle and could easily shop for books while they were there, they made the extra effort to support Vashon businesses instead, she said.

Because Vashon Bookshop sells mostly used books, Barringer added, they are not as affected by downturns in the economy as other businesses may be, and certainly didn’t feel the effects in 2007.

Edwards said she valued the “rapport of businesses” on-Island.

“For instance, if I didn’t have something, I could recommend a retailer who did and other businesses did the same for me,” she said. “That made for a healthy business community on Vashon.”

Barringer and Kimmel also mentioned suggesting another Island location when theirs didn’t have a desired item.

George Wright, manager of the Heron’s Nest, said she recommended customers to other retailers also.

“I did my shopping on-Island, and I hope everybody else did,” she said. “We had a very nice season; we were very pleased about it.”

She said pottery, ceramics, prints and hand-woven and hand-dyed scarves were the holiday season’s biggest sellers.

Wright attributed the Heron’s Nest’s success to the quality of its art.

“November and December make everyone’s business, not just the retailers on the Island, but nationwide,” she said. “We have a great diversity of artists and the work they do is very diverse. People are pleased to buy it for themselves and they’re even more pleased to buy it as a gift.”

A couple Vashon retail locations didn’t feel an influx of customers over the holidays, however.

Terri Weed, owner of the Relaxation Station, said 2007 was a slow year for her. She said her business sold massage gift certificates over the holidays, but fewer than they’d sold in 2006.

Weed said her only thought was to attribute her sluggish sales to the economy and said she’d be reaching out to healthcare providers in the community to bolster sales in the coming year.

And Shelley Davis, co-owner of Island Thyme, said she noticed most of her customers came from off-Island and were either visiting Islanders or vacationing on Vashon.

She also said she noticed some Island regulars bypassed her store. The experience, she said, inspired her and her partner to offer tea to entice customers into the store.

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