In a thriving tech community, it can be easy to overlook certain sectors that also help boost the economy. In Bellevue alone, for example, sales tax from the retail industry makes up 10 percent of the city’s operating resources — about $113.1 million. But it’s an industry most may not at first equate with the city.
But the technology developed in thriving areas like the Eastside is not mutually exclusive from the landscape of retail. The ever-growing e-commerce scene has pushed many retailers into online sales as a way to keep up with their competition.
Though e-commerce accounts for only 14.3 percent of sales across retail sectors in North America, this figure varies widely between categories. Furniture and home-furnishing currently makes up 13.4 percent of total e-retail sales, while 27.4 percent of apparel sales were made online in 2017. In the world of books, those online sales hover closer to 70 percent.
Eastside companies of this type have noticed the shift in the air in the last handful of years, thanks to the rise of e-commerce. Their philosophies about the changing arena, however, are very different.
“I do what I can to make the e-commerce site robust,” said Jay Behar, president of Behar’s Furniture in Everett. The family-owned business has been in operation since 1963 and under Behar’s direction for the past 25 years after his father retired. Sales have been up lately, thanks to the general growth of Everett in the last few years, Behar said. He also said that the shift in consumer habits as a result of online presence has been a clear one.
“We started really noticing a change around the recession,” Behar said. “In my opinion, it was around that time that e-commerce really started to grow. It seems like from about that point onward, we’ve seen in-store traffic counts drop, but the customers who do come in are much more serious.”
That is, people do all their research online but are still interested in coming into stores to make sure that they’re getting what they want.
Adding e-commerce functionality to draw in more customers — and serious ones — the way Behar’s has is something that hasn’t been necessary for La Ree Boutique in Bellevue during its last 12 years of business.
“To be honest, we turn over inventory so quickly that we haven’t needed to turn to e-commerce yet,” owner Rachael Nov said.
Nov also recently started another company: Jin & the Banker, a fine jewelry store down the street from La Ree that has had e-commerce in the works since shortly after its December opening. While the question of whether to go with e-commerce still remains unanswered for La Ree, it was an automatic yes for Jin & the Banker.
“They’re totally different business models,” Nov said. “Jewelry is so much more intimate, and it naturally has a slower turnover. We want e-commerce in order to establish more of a global presence.”
La Ree might go that direction, too, she said, but it’s a matter of figuring out what works best for the store — it’s a lot of work. It’s not like the big-box stores, where an e-commerce presence is key, Nov said: A lot of people seek out high-end boutiques like La Ree for the personal shopping experience they can provide.
That experience is what independent bookstores like Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond are all about. And despite the bleak percentages in the book world that suggest it might be e-commerce or nothing, the 2-year-old bookstore is flourishing without it.
“The only month we didn’t grow was February, because we had the snow storms,” laughed Dan Ullom, co-owner of the store. “I know I can’t beat Amazon at e-commerce. So, right now, we would rather just make the in-store experience as good as possible.”
Brick & Mortar Books bolsters that experience by inviting in authors on a weekly basis, bringing more people into the store for readings and signings. Being in Redmond Town Center, where there is a lot of foot traffic and customers from the Microsoft campus who are tired of looking at their screens, is a boost to business, as well.
And for Ullom, the intimacy and personality of owning an independent business is an advantage.
“There are a lot of chains that are having a hard time,” he said. “In this mall we’ve lost Macy’s, Gymboree, Victoria’s Secret. But then we have some smaller stores that have come in to replace them that are doing really well.”
Across the Eastside, smaller stores like Ullom’s, Nov’s, and Behar’s are growing, seemingly regardless of their online presence. And though e-commerce will also likely continue to expand, it seems that the Eastside’s brick and mortars receive enough support from the community not only to survive, but to thrive.