Holiday retail: ‘A day in the life’

Maegan Sale Kennedy mvsk14@gmail.com
Posted 12/6/16

Port Townsend is known for its scenery, quirky festivals and small-town hospitality. Some visitors tour for a day of eating and shopping; some arrive by boat, RV and bicycle to stay for a week. While …

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Holiday retail: ‘A day in the life’

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Port Townsend is known for its scenery, quirky festivals and small-town hospitality. Some visitors tour for a day of eating and shopping; some arrive by boat, RV and bicycle to stay for a week. While the attraction to Port Townsend may be its sights, hikes or atmosphere, many of the eclectic shops in town are destinations in and of themselves. Woodworking, vintage automobiles, handmade jewelry, glasswork and antiques are among the many goods offered in Port Townsend.

Many Port Townsend small-business owners find making a living difficult during the off-season. It’s not as simple as paying the rent: It’s keeping up with trends, customer demands, staying afloat and paying employees. This area’s business is seasonal, which makes keeping a business open all year around financially difficult.

Amanda Steurer-Zamora, an assistant at Maestrale, 821 Water St., made this observation:

“The expectation that retail should be stagnant is death to retail,” Steurer-Zamora said. “We have to keep looking at what’s the next thing or people won’t come in. … That’s the tricky balance, creating curiosity. I love it when people come back to see what’s new and what’s next. That’s a ‘thank you.’”

So while June through October provide peak sales, the holiday season is often a make-or-break time for many stores. Competition is also no small matter in a small town. Stores may overlap in their merchandise in an attempt to boost sales, which – while logical – is potentially devastating for small-shop owners who compete with other local businesses, several business owners noted.

“My biggest concern is for this town,” said Susan Jacobs, owner of Sport Townsend, 1044 Water St. She began working at Sport Townsend in 1995, and later purchased the business. “Part of the charm is all of the little stores. … What else is there going to be if they fold?”

Stryker Gooch, a Sport Townsend employee, echoed the concern. “One of the things about Port Townsend is we have all of these iconic stores,” he noted. “I’m watching a lot of these little stores starting to fail now, because the economy is forcing people to go to Walmart, where they are not getting the customer service they do in these little shops.”

Customer service, as well as shoppers, are vital for many retailers’ businesses, noted Judy Kowalski, owner of The Spice and Tea Exchange, 929 Water St. Both she and Jacobs are owners and employees of their businesses.

“I get really excited when people are excited,” Kowalski said. “We greet everyone, we encourage customers to smell everything and we make everything [spice mixes] here.” Both Jacobs and Kowalski are actively involved in their stores, whether it’s interacting with customers, helping their employees or working the register. There seems to be an easy camaraderie between employer and employee in many shops.

“This is one of the best customer service jobs I’ve ever had,” said Rachel Lee, an employee at The Spice and Tea Exchange. “So many people want to come in, be friendly and chat.”

This enthusiasm is why many employees and employers in Port Townsend have extremely loyal customers. It’s big-city service in a small town.

However, as the holidays approach, stress levels tend to soar. It is not uncommon for people to be in a hurry, in a rush to catch a ferry or simply frustrated with the extra effort and money spent during this season. Many retail workers work extra hours during this season. Most are happy to help, but are also ready to offer advice.

“Don’t throw your money or credit card at people,” Lee suggested. “Treat [store employees] like a person; be more polite.”

The general consensus seems to be that if customers need help, clerks are more than happy to offer it. Maestrale’s Steurer-Zamora said she is enthusiastic about helping customers find “that perfect gift.” What makes her feel the best about her job is “when someone comes in and tells me that they’ve been looking for this piece for a long time. It’s like a Cinderella moment. That’s the part I love.”

Longtime Port Townsend business owners and their employees know that owning or working in a small shop does not simply involve opening the door and standing behind a cash register. Freight (often hundreds of pounds), phone calls, customer service and any number of random occurrences can make any day unique or even painful. Sometimes, there are strange requests or awkward situations.

“While working here, I was helping a very nice lady buy something, and right at the end of it, she tried to kiss me,” Sport Townsend’s Gooch noted.

What type of transaction led to such a customer reaction? “It was [the purchase of] rope,” Gooch said, laughing. “It was a little weird.”

Nothing surprises Sport Townsend’s Jacobs.

“Every day, I’ve heard something I haven’t heard before,” she said. “But we bend over backwards to provide service to our customers.”

Perhaps that is the best way to describe the work that goes into maintaining local businesses. Even if there are differing opinions, there is something for everyone.

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