Not-so-visible stores deserve a closer look
It’s easy to see the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping in full swing.
More to these stores: Local businesses with a small footprint, big reach
It’s like a giant invisible mall. It bustles and profits but without the sprawling buildings, the jammed parking lots and the wall-to-wall crowds.
Instead, scores of free-wheeling entrepreneurs across the Wenatchee Valley have built a parallel economy — mostly online — of retailers for clothing, books,, hardware, food and other specialties. They cater to shoppers around the world and tally millions of dollars in annual sales.
Digital commerce “extends our reach to almost every country in the world,” said Austin Kurpuis, tech manager for Orchard Corset, the online shapewear outlet operating from a non-descript warehouse in south Wenatchee. “Our website is our storefront and social media is our primary marketing tool. And we can do it all from right here in North Central Washington.”
Other businesses — definitely a minority — work through distributors selling in brick-and-mortar stores. For example, Wenatchee-based fishing lure company Mack’s Lure uses its website to sell only to those who don’t live near one of the stores nationwide that carry its patented fishing lures.
Of course, online retailing isn’t new, admitted owners of local e-businesses. But since Amazon and Ebay launched in 1995, technologies and selling strategies have evolved to include lightning-fast connections (optical fiber in Chelan and Douglas counties), improved shipping speeds (overnight delivery is common), new payment options (super-secure credit swipes and PayPal), plus pinpoint online searches (SEO) and tracking of everything from website visitors to, say, customers’ least favorite color for a purse.
Local online retailers said they try to take advantage of almost every advance — whether it’s new techology or a new business strategy.
“Years ago, we never would have guessed that Amazon would switch from being a competitor to a welcome partner,” said Jackie Stonas, owner of Forget Me Not Kids, the slick online clothing retailer based in downtown Wenatchee. “But selling strategies have changed in the last five years. Now we sell more merchandise through Amazon than we do on our own website.”
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in August that online sales across the nation for 2013’s second quarter were up 18.4 percent over the same quarter last year. And eMarketer, a company that tracks online shopping trends, predicts that from 2011 to 2016 the number of online shoppers will jump 15 percent (to 195 million) with spending rising more than 60 percent to $345 billion.
Wenatchee Valley Business World wanted to give readers a peek at some of the top local companies with big online footprints. All companies are privately owned, so earnings aren’t made public. But the big players report annual sales of $2 to $4 million with one- and two-person mom-and-pop companies far below that.
Owner and designer: Melissa Wisen
Year founded: 2007, Wenatchee
What she does: Designs and sells handbags, computer bags, iPad covers, e-reader bags, totes, purses and accessories. She and her Pasco-based mom are the only two full-time employees.
Sales mix: Internet, 95 percent; everything else, including sales in third-party retail shops, 5 percent.
Why a Wenatchee Valley base?
Wisen, 39, launched the business to be home with her kids, then ages 1 and 4. As sales have grown, her location in the middle of the state makes shipping around the region low-cost and easy.
Fast Internet, delivered over Chelan County PUD fiber, “is huge,” she says, especially considering she now has customers in 60 countries worldwide, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, which collectively account for about 20 percent of sales.
Wenatchee’s small enough so that a trip to the post office is quick for customers with urgent orders.
“To think I could be here in little Wenatchee and make a living,” she said. “And the biggest part is being home with the kids.”
Holiday sales: Yes. Holidays “are very, very, busy,” she says. “I won’t be miserable until Cyber Monday, and then until the end of January.”
Owners: Jessica and Tyler Russell. Jessica is the head designer.
Year founded: 2002 in Bend, Ore. Moved to Wenatchee in 2010.
What they do: Create and sell “eco-fabulous” jewelry, hand made of recycled metals and natural stones. All are made in the U.S. by themselves and others.
Sales mix: Internet and wholesale, 75 percent; the rest come from walk-in sales to their Wenatchee storefront/jewelry workshop
Why a Wenatchee Valley base?
Family is a big draw, they say, and rent on a commercial space was lower here than it was in Bend, where they used to live.
“I feel like it’s worked out really well, because we live where we want to live. Getting to Seattle is really easy. We do a lot of business in Seattle, Portland and the (San Francisco) Bay Area.”
They also sell jewelry to 150 stores in the U.S., Australia, France, Hong Kong and Canada.
Holiday sales spike? Yes. Storefront business picks up in December. Over the website, sales start picking up in August, as sellers gear up for the holidays.
Store: 105 Palouse St., Wenatchee
Owners: Charlene and Larry Woodward
Year founded: 1986 in Seattle. Moved to Wenatchee in 1992.
What they do: Internet and store sales of dog-themed books, DVDs, toys and supplies. The company also reprints classic titles and publishes its own titles through Dogwise Publishing.
Sales mix: Internet, 99 percent. The rest is from walk ins to their Wenatchee store and distribution center.
Why a Wenatchee Valley base?
“It was really a personal lifestyle decision for my wife and I,” Larry said. “We used to come to Wenatchee for swim meets. Our daughter was a competitive swimmer.”
The only disadvantage to running a bookseller in the Northwest is geography. “Most of our customers are not in the Pacific Northwest, so we spend more money shipping books than we would if we were in Tennessee or Missouri,” he said.
One of the really good things about Wenatchee is that if you hire good people they will generally stick with you.
The couple no longer sends out catalogs or takes books to dog shows to sell around the country.
Amazon.com, once a formidable competitor, has become their biggest customer.
“We ship a tremendous number of books to Amazon, and we sell electronic books through Amazon,” he said. “They made life tough for a few years, but now our whole business model has changed. Now, every year, a higher and higher percentage of sales are books we publish ourselves. We do all the negotiations with authors, we do the editing and layout.”
Dogs are a “major, major part” of their customers’ lives, he said. It’s a narrow market for trainers and serious dog enthusiasts.
Holiday sales spike? No. November and December are no busier than the rest of the year. Walk-in sales may increase a bit.
Store: 403 S. Mission St., Wenatchee
Owner: Bob Schmidt
Year founded: 1969 by Vern McPherson in Riggins, Idaho. He moved the business to Leavenworth in the early 1970s. His son, Ray, took over as president and moved the company to Wenatchee. Bob Schmidt came out of early retirement after a successful career in sales to join the company in 2008. He purchased the company a year later.
What they do: Manufacture and sell via distributors, direct sales to retailers and Internet of some 1,000 different fishing lures. The company has more than 20 trademarks on lures that include Wedding Ring spinner, Glo Hook, Smile Blade and Double Whammy.
“A lot of our brand names are better known than our actual business name,” Schmidt says.
Corporate headquarters in Wenatchee is the distribution center for lures manufactured at four locations around the world.
Sales mix: 80 percent come thought distributors who sell to retail stores; 15 percent from direct sales to dealers; 5 percent from Internet sales, which are intended to serve customers who want to buy Mack’s Lure products but don’t live near any of the stores that sell them.
Why a Wenatchee Valley base?
“The choice was personal,” Schmidt said of the McPherson family, who loved the valley, the climate and lifestyle. Shipping and other business costs would be lower if the company were located in a larger area city, including Portland or Spokane, he said. He also pointed to lower labor costs if they moved outside of Washington, home of the country’s highest minimum wage.
Those business advantages don’t outweigh the personal desire to remain in the valley, he said.
Owner: Jeff Kurpuis
Year founded: 1998, went online in 1999
What they do: Orchard Corset sells corsets, shapewear, hosiery and accessories to women and men (males make up about 20 percent of sales) around the globe. The company’s online presence includes a website with sumptuous photography and scores of slick videos, a Facebook page with an ongoing discussion of corsets (and their uses) and photos from customers, and lots of activity on other social media sites, including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Vimeo. “We help our customers adjust their bodies and figures,” said Austin Kurpuis, the company’s tech manager and son of founder Jeff. Orchard has grown fast, with expansion of its production facilities — photos and videos — getting squeezed from the company’s warehouse to a new separate studio.
Sales mix: 100 percent online. No storefront.
Why a Wenatchee Valley base? Austin Kurpuis said his grandparents moved to Wenatchee decades ago and the family stayed. Wenatchee remains a good location for an Internet business with good fiber connections, cheap electricity and multiple shipping options.
Holiday sales spike? Yes, a small one.
Forget Me Not Kids
Owner: Jackie Stonas
Year founded: 2003
What they do: Forget Me Not Kids is a high-end retailer of children’s clothing that specializes in stylish diaper bags and decorative caps for kids. The website also offers a range of other products, including baby shower gifts, jewelry, shoes and hair adornments (headbands, fancy bows, flowery hair clips). The diaper bag line — called Petunia Pickle Bottom (“diaper bags to die for”) — includes the Scout Collection for men, which features a leather rucksack-style bag ($271). Stonas says her business model has shifted to include more sales through mega-retailer Amazon. That eases work but keeps sales going strong while she focuses on the activities of her teenage kids. “That’s what’s great about owning an online business,” she said. “I can streamline operations to concentrate on family, and then expand later when I have more time to devote to marketing.”
Sales mix: 90 percent online and 10 percent in-store.
Why a Wenatchee base? The Stonas family moved to Wenatchee from Spokane to be close to relatives and so the kids could attend Cascade Christian Academy. Turned out it was an excellent move business-wise, said Stonas, because of Wenatchee central location between Seattle and Spokane.
Holiday sales spike? A small one.
Store location: 1 S. Wenatchee Ave., Wenatchee
Alphabet Garden Designs
Owners: Camilla Rose and Jenn West
Year founded: 2007
What they do: They create and sell upscale custom vinyl wall decals (sometimes called vinyl transfers or wall lettering) and canvas wall art, mostly focused on designs for children. In six years, the business has grown tremendously — from having $200 in their bank accounts to having a global list of customers and “a company that actually has employees,” said West. They run their business based on five principles: 1) be a mommy-based company with time set aside for family; 2) work on their own schedules; 3) have a big Internet presence; 4) sell high-quality products; and 5) offer superior customer service.
Sales mix: 99 percent online, 1 percent in-store. “We have a storefront location, so you can walk in and say hi,” laughed West. “But it’s not really a retail operation.”
Why a Wenatchee base? The two business partners have husbands who work for the state Department of Agriculture. “And we discoverd Wenatchee is a friendly city to have a business,” said West.
Holiday sales spike: Not really. The real surge in business comes when kids go back to school and moms are home alone and shopping the Internet, especially for kids’ gifts.