museums&MORE Fall 2009
Debbahs Gift Shop

From the beauty of the coastline and forests to the quaint shops with local flavor, there’s a special mystique to Bar Harbor. Surrounded by Acadia National Park and nestled on the east side of Mt. Desert Island, the town has welcomed visitors for more than 100 years. And for more than 50 years, customers have ventured into what has become a landmark of sorts — Debbahs Gift Shop.

Located in the center of Main Street, Debbahs has a rich history of offering the widest assortment of products at a variety of price points. It bills itself a one-stop gift and souvenir shop offering everything from plush, shot glasses, flip-flops and costume jewelry to sterling silver, key chains, magnets and mugs — with a history of success.

My grandfather opened Debbahs Gift Shop in the year 1953,” said Leon Debbah. “After he retired, my father took it over and then passed it down to me. I’m the youngest child and have taken over sole ownership for the last 10 years.”

Debbahs is now a 2,100-square foot seasonal resort clothing, gift and souvenir shop open from May to November. During the winter months they do a majority of their buying at various shows, such as the Gatlinburg shows in November, the Surf Expo in Orlando and the New York and Boston gift shows. Then at the end of every April, they start to reorganize the store and get ready for selling season.

Ship Sales
Acadia is America’s second most visited national park, after Yellowstone, and Debbah said that customers visiting the area have told him they stop every year to see what items they have to offer for that season.

“We generally do the most business in the months of July and August, especially around the Fourth of July,” he said. “Bar Harbor does an excellent job entertaining its guests during the holiday by offering a variety of activities and concerts and putting on a spectacular fireworks display that evening.”

During that time, they bring in some patriotic merchandise, such as American flag themed apparel and accessories, towels, T-shirts, costume jewelry, etc. for the occasion. And while they don’t get asked about carrying U.S. made products as much today as they used to, they still try to purchase as much Maine-made or American-made products as possible.

Debbah has found that when people go on vacation, they generally enjoy learning a little bit about the place they’re visiting, the culture and what it is that attracts so many people to that location. So at Debbahs, they try to do all of this through their merchandise.

“For example, most Mainers do not pronounce the letter ‘r,'” Debbah said. “They would call Bar Harbor ‘Baa-Haa-ba’ or ‘Lobsta,’ so many of our mugs, T-shirts and souvenirs will feature graphics exaggerating these accents. We also sell jewelry made in Maine from a company called Swift Arrow. They make us lobster, moose, lighthouse silver earrings, charms and necklaces, along with other pieces.”

Because it is such a tourist area, the store has established good relationships with other restaurants, stores and even some of their competition.

“When you’re in such a small town — especially a tourist town with fewer than 5,000 residents — a lot of business comes by word of mouth,” Debbah said. “Many stores and restaurants recommend us to their customers as a good place to shop, and we supply them with business cards to distribute or keep on the counters.”

What really sparks successful seasonal sales isn’t necessarily the customers that arrive by land, but those that arrive by sea. Bar Harbor has cruise ships from May until November, with close to 100 scheduled for 2009. Shortly after the large cruise lines decided to make Bar Harbor a port of call, they worked on building a relationship with them. After several years of receiving excellent feedback from store customers, the ships took to recommending Debbahs as “the” souvenir shop in Bar Harbor.

“Out of all the gift shops in Bar Harbor, Debbahs is the only gift shop recommended by Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Cunard ships — and that includes the world famous Queen Mary 2,” Debbah said. “We offer their passengers a 10 percent discount, as well as a free gift for coming to the store.”

The majority of those visitors come in the later months of September and October when the leaves are changing colors. Those customers are generally older, established adults seeking clothing, jewelry and plush moose and lobsters with “Maine” embroidery and designation.

“”Along with custom made souvenirs — such as picture frames, keepsake boxes and pens —I also notice that we sell more infant clothing and toys during those times,”” Debbah said, “”as grandparents are always buying for their grandchildren. In fact, when customers come in they usually notice something they would need to purchase for someone back home — along with one for themselves.””

Quality Control
And while plush, postcards and collectibles quickly make their way off the shelves, Debbahs may be best known for the selection of resort wear and accessories that it offers. Along with traditional “”Bar Harbor”” customized clothing, they have found that the comical T-shirts and gift items do very well and work with Life is Crap, Blue -Q, Moose Whiz and the Duck Co. for these products.

Debbah said it’s not just product that brings people in — presentation is everything. Every year that he has owned Debbahs, he has been remodeling the store — whether it was the new hard wood floor he put in or brand new wall fixtures — the store appearance and everything it has to offer keeps progressing.

“”MV Sport, a company that we buy much of our clothing from, provided us with woo””en cubed displays designed to show the customer the article of clothing without unfolding the stack,”” Debbah said. “With these T-shirt floor displays, not only do sales improve, but they also help by reducing folding time as customers generally will not unfold the T-shirt since they can already see what it looks like.””

They also use size wrap around labels on the T-shirts and hanger size buttons to help the customer get what they are looking for. Debbah has found that this helps in two ways. First, if a sales associate is not available, customers can help themselves rather than get frustrated and leaving. Second, it allows the sales associates to help the customer more efficiently, as it organizes the clothing by size and keeps the warehouse neat as well.

The staff — around five full-time and three part-time employees — is constantly making sure that customers are helped and that the store stays orderly. Throughout the years, Debbah has come to the conclusion that customers don’t like to ask for help when it comes to prices and sizes.

“”I advise retailers to take the time and organize the shop so that all sizes are on the floor, customers can easily reach items and that the price of items — whether they’re on sale or not — are openly displayed,”” he said. “”It’s also important to always have someone on the floor to assist patrons, as customers will leave if they are not attended to.””

Along with traditional souvenir items, Debbahs also has something for the discerning shopper. They have purchased several unique displays that highlight upscale jewelry throughout the store, with silver and precious gem jewelry displayed in high-end Opto-Display showcases.

“”The more popular items are put in the back of the store, which encourages the customer to go through the entire store,”” Debbah said. “”Today’s customer is a lot wiser than those of the past and more than ever, they seek the value in the merchandise they purchase.””

“”My father taught me that even in tough economic times, competitive prices would always keep you afloat and allow you to continue the business,”” he continued. “”Our merchandise is top quality displayed the best way we know how. We try to keep our costs down so that we are able to pass along the saving to our customers.””

And it’s just that mentality — combined with an eclectic selection of regional merchandise and Bar Harbor charm — that may just keep tourists coming back for another 50 years.”

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