Once in a Blue Moose
Alaska, known as “The Last Frontier,” is a location that attracts visitors for many reasons — its vivid beauty, fishing, dog sledding, gold, and, of course, glaciers. The 49th state offers something for everyone.
Although many retailers cater to travelers, Alaska has a unique difference: its remote location. Winter weather is extreme and only the daring adventurers may journey to this climate for a visit during the cold season. Retail owners have a challenge in terms of managing sales during the busy and slow seasons.
Retailers in Alaska rely heavily on its yearly visitors for strong sales, the majority of which travel to the region between May and September. Many travelers arrive in its 23 ports, through which 56 cruise ships travel, which provides a plethora of tourist activity and spending.
In a 2017 study, Economic Impact of Alaska’s Visitor Industry, released by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Division, tourism accounted for 43,300 jobs, $1.5 billion in labor income, and $4.5 billion in economic output. The report stated: “Employment resulting directly from visitor spending is concentrated in five sectors: food and drink (6,900 jobs), accommodations (6,200 jobs), retail (5,300), tours and activities (5,000), and transportation (4,100).” The information also conveyed that one in ten jobs are a result of the travelers into the area.
According to the report, “Alaska welcomed 2.2 million visitors during the study period of October 2016 to September 2017.” Here is the breakdown of how the visitors arrive to this state: 49% by cruise; 47% by air; and 4% by highway or ferry. It also noted that visitors spent an estimated $2.2 billion in the state in 2017. These statistics show visitors spend about $427 million on gifts and souvenirs, which equates to approximately 20% of overall visitor spending.
>>SEE ALSO: A Traveler’s Perspective.
Once in a Blue Moose, a 50 year-old retail business, is a successful operation that specializes in Alaskan gifts. Currently, this independent store has 70 employees in the summer and approximately 35 to 40 during the winter months, and has nine locations throughout Alaska. Five stores are in Anchorage, with two in Seward and two in Talkeetna. Hilary Fisher, co-owner of Once in a Blue Moose, shared how it has been able to capture travelers’ attention and sales, and offers inspiration to others.
“Blue Moose was founded by my grandmother, May Jefford, in 1969,” said Fisher. Jefford was a savvy businesswoman with an entrepreneurial spirit, and she became a true pioneer in the Alaskan gift industry, Fisher explained. “Today, the business is owned by myself, my cousin, and our mothers,” she said. Fisher also emphasized how great it is to employ so many members of the local community.
The downtown Anchorage store is located in an area that offers “great gift shops and boutiques with a variety of specialities like fur, art, yarn, and Alaska Native carvings.” This unique setting has allowed Fisher’s business to really reflect the region. “We purchase local whenever possible, and we favor our local product lines,” she elaborated.
“Rather than go deep into any lines, we cherry pick from hundreds of vendors. We have everything from high-end Alaska Native art to inexpensive keepsakes,” noted Fisher. “With such a range of products, we hope to be a one-stop shopping destination where everyone can find a gift for coworkers, friends and family, as well as that perfect remembrance for themselves.” Product offerings include jewelry, apparel, winter wear, specialty foods, books, art, linens, kitchenware, and toys and feature an Alaskan theme or are made in Alaska.
Once in a Blue Moose is a very seasonal business where a majority of shoppers visit from mid-May through mid-September. Fisher explained, although the store doesn’t engage in a great deal of marketing efforts, its locations are strategically placed in areas of high traveler foot traffic. This methodology has been and continues to be successful for this retailer.
“We are happy to be in a state many people dream of visiting and have on their bucket list. Most people fulfilling the goal of coming to Alaska are excited to purchase the gems they find in our shops,” said Fisher. To capture the interest of the tourism market, Fisher focuses on excellence — in product quality and customer service — and making shoppers feel welcome.
“The word ‘tourist’ makes it sound like one doesn’t belong, whereas ‘traveler’ implies someone on an adventure. I like to refer to our tourists as travelers. We love to hear about the adventure our travelers are having and be part of that magical trip of a lifetime,” explained Fisher. “It can make for a fun shopping experience for the traveler, and a rewarding experience for our sales staff.
Fisher shared that exceptional customer service is a priority in the stores. “We have a liberal return policy and always go the extra mile. We try to keep a fun atmosphere and encourage our sales staff to build a rapport with the customers,” she said.
Although customer service helps to captivate travelers during the busy season, Once in a Blue Moose has successfully cultivated a local following, which allows them to be successful during the slower seasons. Specifically, Fisher shared fun, new items are brought into stores for the fourth quarter, and that the Alaskan product mix appeals to the local pride. Additionally, Fisher commented some of the shops are situated in hotels, which enables them “to capture some convention business in the off-season.”
Fisher has found many aspects of co-ownership of the business rewarding: “I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to work with my family, and I’m proud to be a part of carrying on the legacy. It’s also incredible to be able to support so many local artists and businesses. I have heard many times how my grandmother placed the first order for an artist or business and gave them guidance to help them get started.”