Adventures in Paradise Outfitters, a retailer located in Sanibel Island, Florida, opened its first store in May 2009. Two years ago it opened a second store in St. Petersburg. Josh Stewart and his parents launched this family-owned business that provides merchandise that truly reflects the island lifestyle — which is known for fishing, shelling and relaxing.
Stewart credits his parents for his retail education and feels he learned the business from their old-school merchandiser approach. “There is value in learning like this,” he said.
Stewart noted that when they launched the business, they focused not on gawdy items, but quality items that reflected the island way of life. “The Island is a relatively quiet beach town and is attuned to Mother Nature and the environment with a small town feel and not many big box stores. There are many independently owned, mom and pop stores,” he shared.
“We wanted to offer hard to find brands all in one retail setting,” he emphasized. “From sun protective clothing to fishing and shelling merchandise, we collected more brands over the years. Basically we picked out things we liked and went from there. Here you can mix and match — we do the hard work and find some great looking things.”
Stewart explained Adventures in Paradise Outfitters is unique due to its ambience. “It feels like coming home to shop in terms of how it is set up. We have family heirlooms hanging around the store and a couch in the back, a TV and pool table — it doesn’t have a retail feel, it feels comfortable,” he said.
He also noted that his staff makes the store appealing. “Everyone here wants to make friends with everyone. That is a big part of the store’s success. We have a friendly, warm, welcoming environment. It’s a small store with a lot of thought and energy into the story behind it,” he emphasized.
The merchandise mix includes apparel, accessories, home décor, kids, footwear and beach related items geared towards fishing and shelling. Branded and namedrop merchandise is also available as are baskets and soaps from local sources at the St. Pete’s location. The shop even offers customers outfits suitable for a safari or rainforest trip. He carries brands that are well-established as well as new brands that reflect a sustainable conscience.
Stewart said that he focuses on carrying items that are hard to find all in one location and are high quality. “We want items that will last and are durable, and look nice,” he said. “Also we want products with color.”
When the business opened, it began with five to six lines. Now Stewart offers over 30 brands. To source product, he attends some shows, such as SurfExpo and occasionally will attend SwimExpo in Atlanta. “I really look at what people are wearing. You’d be surprised how many brands I grabbed because I saw it on a customer in the store,” he explained. “I get more (lines) that way then trade shows.”
Well-established brands such as Patagonia, Pura Vida and OLUKAI are widely available and many offer a way shoppers give-back, as the major brands have numerous products that give-back to a cause with product purchases. Best-selling product categories include sun protective clothing, comfortable footwear and bright, comfortable dresses.
The busy season runs from November through April and Stewart usually staffs each store with three to five employees. He tends to increase staff during the busy season and employs several university students to help at the store.
This year was atypical due to the pandemic. “The shut down in mid-March was in the middle of the busy season,” he explained. “February and January sales were tremendous. We have to get inventory by the end of February. We did get all of it but then had to close two weeks later. All this merchandise and the bills… we were hoping for the best.”
During the closure, he “grinded teeth and knocked out a website in two weeks.” He then utilized social media and email to contact customers and he is pleased with the success of those efforts, but did express that it will take at least a year or two before he may recoup from the shutdown.
When he reopened the store in May he continued to sell online and offered a weekly Facebook Live show — Drinks with Josh. He showed new items and would even visit other retailers during the show to help promote other local businesses.
Since island retail can be seasonal, Stewart relies on the snowbirds and his peak season for his bigger sales, although his business is also supported by loyal, local customers. He curates a product mix with all his customers in mind. In the summer, more families come into the store, so he will carry more products geared towards children. During snow bird season, he will carry items he knows will appeal to that consumer and generate sales.
His favorite part of owning the store is crafting the story. “I like to create a color story or several narratives such as going fishing or hanging out — it makes an ever-changing art piece in here,” he emphasized.
Most importantly, Stewart focuses on his customers. “When people come to our store, we like to give the personal touch. We wrap it up, put personal notes and even send seashells from Sanibel,” he shared.