Martha’s Vineyard businesses tend to struggle with the seasonal nature of the Island. The few months when the Island population is at its peak are profitable, the rest of the year not so much. However, some local business owners have figured out a way to keep relatively busy throughout the year. By setting up online shops, retailers can reach out to the wider world and also offer their wares to summer people all year long.
“Our mission is to have a local product and sell to our local customers,” says Heidi Feldman, co-owner with her husband Curtis Friedmanof Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt. “But our local customers are comprised of over a million and a half a year [based on the number of annual visitors to the Vineyard who could be potential customers]. Our method of deploying sea salt is selling to locals and visitors who buy it and bring it home. But they needed a way to buy it rather than to call me.”
Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt was launched in 2013. Ms. Feldman and Mr. Friedman offer hand-harvested and solar-evaporated salt from the ocean around Martha’s Vineyard, and organic salt blends such as Blueberry Honey, Lemon Balm, and Smoked Oak. The couple sell their products at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market (including the indoor winter market), but when the bulk of their customers have returned to various points around the country, sold on the flavor of purely natural salt and wanting a gustatory reminder of the Vineyard, they can now restock directly from the M.V. Sea Salt web site.
“You can’t sell online unless folks know about your product,” says Ms. Feldman. “The challenge is getting the word out on the web. We’re relying primarily on word of mouth. We want to support that with web content. The way to create web content is to find keywords that are already out there, and use them in blog posts, Twitter posts, stories, etc.”
Ms. Feldman, who handles the business side of M.V. Sea Salt while Mr. Friedman focuses on the production end, has learned a lot about online marketing, but she has also turned to the experts to help her build her web presence. “We use an Island-based web developer, graphic designer, printer, and social media talents.”
Todd Christy of the Chilmark Coffee Co. launched his coffee-roasting company in 2010 with an emphasis on product rather than distribution. “When we started this business, I was thinking it would really be focused on the local community,” he says. “Mostly we were trying to make a really great product for the Vineyard. I wasn’t thinking too much about where else it would go; just trying to get it into stores. What we found was that people who were here in the summer wanted to buy it after they left the Island.”
Mr. Christy is constantly trying out new beans and artisanal blends to appeal to every palate. His fair trade beans come from all over the world, through a variety of distributors: “Currently we’re moving away from distributors to go beyond organic. We’re trying to do more direct trade from the producers. The idea is to bypass the middleman and eliminate the number of hands touching the product.”
All of this comes with a price tag. “We use only high-end beans,” he says, “We’re buying coffees that are $4 to $6 a pound green. I pay twice the shipping that any roaster pays on the mainland.” Chilmark Coffee Co.’s Island-roasted coffees sell for $16 or $17 a pound. But coffee connoisseurs from all over are willing to pay the price for premium coffees. And a new breed of coffee aficionados have found Mr. Christy through his online presence. “Our web site is a great place for people — not only friends but competitors — to see what we’re doing.”
Mr. Christy often orders coffees from other roasters, and has found that the micro-roasting community tends to be curious about, and supportive of, one another.
Even businesses that don’t produce anything locally have discovered that that their loyal off-Island customers want to continue a relationship year-round.
The retail store Sanctuary in Oak Bluffs carries a wide variety of spiritual, inspirational, and New Age–oriented gifts. Owners Rita and Frank Chiaravalle have a great eye for unique, quality items, including cards, artwork, candles, books, meditation aids, statuary, jewelry, carved beach stones, and much more. Regular customers tend to rely on Sanctuary to provide a range of creative and inspiring gifts for all occasions.
To accommodate off-Island fans, the Chiaravalles have been selling online for more than 10 years. “We have a lot of repeat customers,” says Ms. Chiaravalle. “You need to personalize it as much as you can. People don’t want to deal with a warehouse.”
“In the summer, people are happy to know that you do have an online store. They don’t want to schlep things on the ferry. They don’t have the space. They don’t have the time to shop.”
Customer service is very important to the Sanctuary owners. “We ship out within the same day or the next day,” says Ms. Chiaravalle. “We offer free shipping for orders over $100. We don’t have a lot of returns, but we have a very fair return and exchange policy. Some people are uneasy about ordering online. Our site is very very secure.”
The online store has really become a full-time proposition for the Chiaravalles. Not only is the ordering and shipping process time-consuming, but making sure that new customers can find them is a labor-intensive process.
“Like anything, it’s the energy and the work you put into it,” says Ms. Chiaravalle. “It’s that behind-the-scenes effort: the back end of the web site, the search engine optimization. It’s important that you’re keeping your content fresh every day. People who aren’t doing it well are missing out.”
So far the effort has paid off. “What’s really interesting is that we get people who have never even been to Martha’s Vineyard,” says Ms. Chiaravalle. “When they find out that we’re on M.V., it has that mystique as well.”
Offering a constant supply of new and interesting products keeps customers coming back to the online store, and attracts new business all the time. But selling online is hard work. “You really have to be on top of things,” says Ms. Chiaravalle, “making sure you have things in stock. You don’t want to frustrate people after they go through the process.”
Ms. Chiaravalle has found that the payoff is worthwhile. “It’s been such a gift for us. Holiday shopping in the store doesn’t technically heat up until the last 10 days before Christmas. The online business starts in November. Then in the last week it tapers off, so that we can focus our energies on the local business.” Sounds like a perfect combination for sustainable success.
Sanctuary will be closed until February, but you can shop there year-round, 24/7, at thelifedivine.com. Order your Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt anytime at mvseasalt.com. Shop for Chilmark Coffee around the clock at chilmarkcoffeco.com.