The art of the Alaska gift market: Science and savvy

Mike Dunham

Jana Hayenga, owner of Cabin Fever Gifts in downtown Anchorage, is still a couple of weeks away from her busy season.

"On May 15, the light switches on," she said. "And it stays on until the end of Sept-ember."

A report done by the McDowell Group for the Alaska Division of Economic Development, "Economic Impact of Alaska's Visitor Industry," estimates that 1.9 million tourists came to the state between October 2012 and September 2013, the overwhelming majority during the summer. They spent $1.8 billion, not counting airline or cruise ship tickets, with Southcentral Alaska getting the biggest piece of the pie, 44 percent.

Nineteen percent of the total, $347 million, went to purchase gifts or souvenirs, the largest category aside from lodging, $362 million.

All around Anchorage -- especially along Fourth Avenue -- and across the state gift shop owners have been preparing to get some of this year's tourist dollars. "We were going to shows and ordering in January and February," said Hayenga. "A few last-minute orders were done in March."

Hayenga, whose previous businesses have included Classic Toys, Once Upon A Time Bookstore and Flypaper, called Cabin Fever a mid-range store. "Some places are heavy into T-shirts. Some places are galleries. We're more of a mix."

The store, which she opened in 1998, is located in one of the oldest buildings in Anchorage, previously the First National Bank of Anchorage headquarters at Fourth Avenue and G Street. The stocks are kept in an even older adjacent structure, likely erected in 1917.

The main showroom features a potpourri of Alaska memorabilia: smoked salmon, birch candy, locally made soap, pottery, books, earrings, Yummy Chummies dog treats, Ray Troll sweatshirts and Christmas ornaments. "We sell them all year-round," Hayenga said.

What does the tourist want? "Things that remind them of their trip to Alaska," Hayenga said. That means she has to see her goods through an outsider's eyes. If a shop owner succeeds in doing that, he or she will make a profit. If not, they'll have boxes of stuff they can't sell.

It's a skill that only comes with years of experience, she said. "I'm looking for things that are well-made, have the right price points and fit my customers. It may be something that I wouldn't buy, but I have to ask myself, 'Is it something someone else will buy?' "

What people value

Many of the articles you'll see on the shelves in Cabin Fever come through Karen Sobolesky and Co. Sobolesky's offices off King St. look like a tidy store, but are in fact showrooms for products the company represents: cups, patches, rubber boots with Northwest Indian designs, jewelry, plush animals and other toys.

Sobolesky travels around the state pitching products from all around the world, not just Alaska. A great deal of totemic form line art comes from British Columbia and some popular items have only a passing association with Alaska realities. Like the Wild Republic "Polar Nature Tube" collection of toy animals made in China. It includes both polar bears and penguins, which live in separate hemispheres.

"So I guess we should call it the 'Bi-Polar Nature Tube,' " Sobolesky said.

With mass-produced items as best-sellers, tourist shops can look pretty much the same from Key West to Puget Sound. Finding unique items is an ongoing quest.

"We went to the biggest trade show in the country, in Atlanta," said Sobolesky's marketing manager, Gia Currier. "Everyone said we'd see all the new and different products, but it was the same stuff in different colors."

Alaska stores can take on a more local feel with only-in-Alaska items attractively displayed, and many do a good job of it, Sobolesky said. "We have some phenomenally beautiful stores in this state that will rival the best gift shops anywhere."

Made-in-Alaska and Made-in-the-USA items do cost more, but they have a significant cliental. "It comes down to what people value," she said.

Local products in the King Street showroom include Alaska-quarried rhyolite jewelry, quirky sculptures from stainless steel utensils made by Bending and Welding of Anchorage and earrings from Chatterworks in Wasilla.

The Chatterworks line was a surprise success, Sobolesky said. The wooden jewelry made on a lathe is inexpensive, has individual and attractive eye-catching design and comes in clever packaging -- the earrings are set in a cutout of the state of Alaska. (A video of artist Andrew Hampe making the earrings can be seen at

Another big seller was Ray Troll's "Da Vinci Cod" T-shirt. "It arrived just before the ('Da Vinci Code') movie came out," Sobolesky said. "We couldn't keep it in stock."

Nonetheless, items that originate in Alaska are a niche market and likely to stay that way. "We don't have the manufacturing capacity up here," Sobolesky said. Even getting Made-in-America product can be tricky. For instance, there's been a renaissance in scarves lately, particularly silk scarves. Almost every one comes from overseas.

"America doesn't have a silk industry," Sobolesky said. "We never have had a silk industry. We never will have."

Books and Europeans

An unexpected growth category has been Alaska books. Sobolesky said there has been double-digit increases in the past few years. These range from the venerable "Alaska ABC Book" created by Shannon Cartwright and Charlene Kreeger 36 years ago (originally by Kreeger's Lone Raven Publishing Co.) and Barbara Lavallee's "Mama, Do You Love Me?" to the recent "I Would Tuck You In" by Sarah Aspen-Smith.

Hayenga has noticed the same thing. An entire wall of Cabin Fever is dedicated to Alaska books. The stock ranges from big photo books to history, non-fiction, adult fiction by Sue Henry, Dana Stabenow and Velma Wallis, cookbooks, field books and a lot of children's books.

"Many of them are bought by grandparents to take to their grandchildren," said Barbara Krizman, who coordinates the book inventory at Cabin Fever.

Many are also purchased as "thank-you" gifts for people who may have fed the dog or watered the plants while the buyer was traveling around in the north. "When you give a gift, you don't want it to be an e-book," said Sobolesky. "You need something you can put in the person's hand."

Another success has been clothing designed by and for young people, Hayenga said. Like the Alaska-themed hoodies from Anchorage-based Hulin Designs."

"The younger crowd hasn't really been our crowd until recently," said Krizman.

One reason is the fluctuating demographic of tourism. In recent seasons, Anchorage has received few cruise ships, which cater to older travelers making a once-in-a-lifetime trip on a package tour. But Hayenga has noticed an increase in families and people traveling independently, often making their second or third trip to the state.

Last year was a particularly good year for independent foreign travelers, she said, with tourists from Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe and Asia. "The Europeans make a big difference," she said. "A lot of them are on six week vacations."

Flat rate math

Whether the buyer is American or Austrian, a retiree or a college student, they are calculating how whatever they buy in Alaska will get back to their home. Scarves and earrings are among the items most likely to be snatched up by a tourist because, for one thing, they pack well, said Sobolesky. She evaluates potential products with an eye toward how well they'll fit into a flat-rate box.

"Freight is a killer for Alaska," she said. "It always has been."

The fact that books are flat may have something to do with their popularity among tourists.

"Flat-rate boxes are the lifeline," Hayenga agreed, not just for shipping purchases out of state, but for receiving products from out of town. "We try to start the season ready, but we have to react as it goes on."

It's a little easier if the product is from in-state. Sobolesky works with local people who make everything from fine art to shortbread. Most of them are hoping to concentrate on making their product rather than taking the time to market it.

"If you make a twizzler, you can go from store to store and try to sell it, or you can find someone to rep you," she said. Self-representation may work, but at the height of tourist season, shop owners may not be willing to take a call from someone they don't know.

On the other hand, with 14 years in the business and a lifetime in Alaska -- she grew up with many of her current clients -- Sobolesky says she's confident she'll get a call back.

Which doesn't mean individual Alaskans making twizzlers won't find a receptive ear if they make a cold call, particularly if they do it before the busy season starts. Alaska's tourist shops are full of local products you won't find in other stores. Hayenga said shop owners develop one-on-one relationships with particular artists over time.

"There were three young carvers from Barrow who came by this month," she recalled. "I was so happy to see young men carving."

Sometimes they're hoping to sell their work through the shop. Other times they're just looking for a little neighborly advice on how much to charge. There again, experience comes in.

"I tell people if it sells too fast, your price is too low," Hayenga said. But if it's too high, people won't buy. You have to find that sweet spot."

And even if the store doesn't have room for a product at the moment, she tries to give people encouragement. "I say, 'Feel free to come back and ask me again.' We don't want anyone to think we're cutting them off. It's just that now may not be the right time."

Don't slam doors, don't burn bridges may be the motto of gift-shop owners everywhere. Their business may boom when out-of-towners arrive, but they have to pay attention to local customers, too, Anchorage residents who are looking for an Alaska Christmas ornament closer to Christmas, for example.

The hasty "not interested" is something to avoid, said Sobolesky. "I always make time to meet people, even if it's just five minutes. You never know when you're going to say 'no' to the next Beanie Baby."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.