There is certainly no end to the beauty of Southeast Alaska. Amongst the breathtaking sites and sounds of the ice calving off glaciers; to the serene, untainted forests; to the majestically clear blue and green waters; to the rugged beauty of its mountain tops; to the splendour of the mammals and wildlife that swim, run and soar freely to their hearts content, Alaska is not to be missed in one’s lifetime. We found the best way to see Alaska is by cruise ship. Apparently many others think the same way.
But there is more to Alaska than nature’s gifts. As a matter of fact, the retail trade seems to be thriving even in the smallest of port towns. We had the pleasure of visiting Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan on our little jaunt and it was an eye opening experience from a merchant’s point of view. Think about a captive audience of approximately 10,000 tourists a day in a 2-4 block radius for 8-10 hours every day, 7 days a week, 5 months out of the year being dropped off right at your front door. That works for me as a merchant.
Let’s start with jewelery. I don’t quite understand how there are over a dozen stores selling the same types of diamonds, tanzanite, emerald, sapphire and gold jewelry sitting side by side along the main streets of these ports of call. As an example, there are 15 stores listed in Ketchikan as jewelry stores (there are more than actually sell jewelry) for a population of 14,000. 46 stores are located in Juneau for a population of 31,000 and a whopping 18 stores listed in tint Skagway, population 892 as of last Thursday at Noon. But they all seem to stay in business and stay happy.
This is a phenomenon of which I am not familiar. I understand there was a gold rush throughout Alaska but I thought it had ended nearly 100 years ago. Well, I guess I was wrong because the gold rush is still going strong in these parts.
I was very impressed with a number of merchants that did not specialize in jewelry. Tongass Trading Company of Ketchikan was an impressive and iconic store in the best location right on the pier. The main floor of their flagship store (there was a satellite store around the corner) was filled with unique gifts, apparel (such as a cute line of printed tees, boxers and PJ’s for all ages named Lazy One) and snacks for us cruisers. The store’s buyers know exactly what to carry in order to effectively cater to the cruising crowd and did it with a healthy dose of inventory and humour. Upstairs was the sporting goods department that probably served the locals and their pastimes since 1898, well before the ships started arriving. The owners were obviously able to adapt their business to capitalize on the changes in customer types and tastes through the years and are still thriving over 100 years later.
While in Ketchikan, do not miss Ketchi’s Candies. A well known local establishment that makes most of its own fudge and chocolate confections on premises, it has a unique blend of local charm and the professionalism of a See’s Candies. It is clean, bright and white and the young staff working there loves the product. So did we…from chocolate covered Oreos to chocolate covered strawberries to multi-coloured licorice to creamy fudge, this place was a best of breed.
Both in Skagway and Juneau there is a chain called the Alaska T-Shirt Company. Now, before I walked in the door, I figured this was a typical tourist trap that preyed off the claustrophobic nature of us cruisers and would take advantage of that pent up demand to dig into our wallets as we aren’t able to onboard the ship. Much to my surprise, the Alaska T-Shirt Company was a sophisticated, well merchandised establishment that made me proud of our profession. Wide aisles, beautiful fixturing and a curated assortment of souvenirs that were quintessentially Alaskan but not tacky made for an outstanding customer experience. Both stores were very busy but the cash lines moved quickly and efficiently. This was a well run operation. Even the candy assortment was local and unique and enticed people to buy. The store looked to be replenished constantly and it was visually very appealing.
We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to gaze at the awe-inspiring beauty of the place that gave the world the Iditarod, precious metals and Sarah Palin, which is also showing us how to effectively merchandise and sell to the tourist industry, a staple of their economy. It is nice to see a place embrace tourism and manage it well from all aspects. Now, if they could just turn up the temperature a tad…