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Retail survivors: How four family-owned Washington shops have made it in the Amazon era

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Ray Mooers said Amazon, earlier in its history, asked Dusty Strings to sell on its site. "Any product they didn't already have, they were looking to bring in," he said. "We got multiple calls from them soliciting our participation."

The Mooers declined, and have continued to stay off Amazon, for reasons of cost and because of the individualized service they feel is an essential part of the business.

"What we do is idiosyncratic enough that we need, a lot of times, personal connection with our customers for it to be effective and worthwhile," Sue Moers said.

The biggest Amazon-related challenge, she said, is how its growth in Seattle has contributed to a rising cost of living.

"It just narrows who can actually afford to live in Seattle and work in this type of business," she said, adding that the same is true for other artisan manufacturers and retailers. "That's the piece that worries anybody in our position."

Playing the long game

"Do we have the Duckabush in topo?" Hanna Brown asked her uncle Eric inside their family's 100-year-old Port Angeles, Wash., shop, Brown's Outdoor, on a recent summer day.

A customer was looking for a topographic map of the upper portion of the Duckabush River near the boundary of Olympic National Park. Eric talked the man through several options showing the remote stretch of wilderness.

A century ago, Hanna Brown's great-great-grandfather came to the Port Angeles area to work on dams. He ended up starting a consignment shop that became an Army surplus store, later an electronics and hi-fi stereo-equipment store and now a backpacking, outdoor-equipment and clothing specialist.

The family business has moved and changed with the times over and again, including as it adapted to the upheaval of online shopping and big-box competitors. Walmart opened in Port Angeles in 1996.

Amazon's steady march from online bookseller in the mid-1990s to the all-encompassing emporium it is today gave specialty stores like Brown's "a lot of time to adjust," Eric Brown said.

But for the most part, they've stuck to what they were doing: providing expertise and equipment for exploring the national park, such as custom-fitted backpacks, hiking boots and the deep catalog of maps.

Like many retailers, Brown's has suffered from "showrooming" -- the consumer practice of trying out an item in a store, only to ultimately purchase online in pursuit of a lower price. (Amazon's short-lived Fire phone had a feature designed for this purpose, and it remains a part of the company's shopping app.)

Brown said the family's philosophy has been to treat those customers the same as any other.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "You continue on with that person. It will be valuable somewhere down the road."

The bet is that in the long term, customers will remember them when they need a higher quality or specialty item not available online or in the big box store.

 

Showrooming is less of a problem than it used to be. Changed pricing practices in the outdoor equipment industry in recent years have reduced some of the pricing advantages that bigger sellers had over small stores like Brown's, he said. Brown has also noticed a shift in consumer sentiment: After years of "buy local" messaging, more people come into the store motivated to do so.

Triple-checking to get it exactly right

Athletic Awards, one of the longest-tenured businesses in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, feels a bit like a local history museum.

There's the Starbucks Golden Bean award. There's the Clammy, from local seafood restaurant chain Ivar's. There's a giant bottle of Dom Perignon engraved with the Vince Lombardi trophy, marking the Seahawks' 2014 Super Bowl win, one of more than a hundred the company did for the team.

The small company is thriving amid the rapid growth of its famous neighbor, Amazon, which Athletic Awards now counts as a customer, with various company teams ordering awards, T-shirts and other corporate swag. Indeed, owner Monty Holmes said, the transformation of the neighborhood into a hub of tech jobs and housing has helped his business, which serves a niche that hasn't been subsumed by e-commerce.

Foot traffic is up. People in the neighborhood stop in at the yellow single-story building adorned with a mural, an analog reader board displaying quirky messages and "the world's largest trophy cup" on the roof. "We just wanted to be the P.T. Barnum" of South Lake Union, said Holmes, who as a co-founder of the neighborhood's Chamber of Commerce has been a longtime advocate and firsthand witness to its transformation.

Athletic Awards has been in its current location since 1983, when Holmes' father bought the property and moved the 70-year-old business from a location a block away. "That's why we're able to be here," Holmes said. "If we were leasing, this would've been probably gone and we'd be out of here."

Holmes said Athletic Awards first added a website in the mid-1990s, but he thought then that people buying a one-of-a-kind item such as an engraved award or custom groomsman gift "were going to have to come in and see it. ... It's a personal item that doesn't translate so well to the internet."

The company added e-commerce capabilities in 1999, and today customers shop the online catalog, place an order and receive a proof via email. That represents about one-fifth of Athletic Awards' sales, mainly to repeat customers. The majority of sales still occur in person.

Holmes said the company treats small jobs the same as large, triple-checking proofs and stretching to meet rush deadlines, knowing how important the items are to his customers.

"This is your Emmy, this is your Oscar ... your icon in your company," he said.

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