By Sara Karnish
Coastal gifts bring the beach to your home any time of year. Whether steps from the shore or several states away, coastal gift shops offer a wide selection of sea-inspired merchandise to appeal to a diverse customer demographic.
“My vision when I opened the store was a seaside cabin, filled with old furniture, full of shelves, but with a nice garden area,” explained Joanne Meeks, owner of Whimsical Wishes in Plymouth, Mass. “Our best-sellers are the [framed prints of] writing in the sand by Lisart of Maine, but we also sell a lot of 18-inch signs with sayings on them that I call ‘shelf sitters.’ People usually buy the ones that are funny—people need to laugh! We also sell a lot of jewelry, and garden [items.]”
Customers looking for an eclectic mix of merchandise—coastal gifts and souvenirs alike—can find it at Sessoms’ Gifts and Candies, a staple of the Sea Isle City, N.J., community for 50 years. Among their variety of items, Owner Roberta Sessoms said mugs are a top seller. “We kind of have three stores in one,” she explained. “One is a fudge shop, and the other is a gift shop with nautical items, natural items, and the more inexpensive souvenirs and mugs. We carry a lot of pirate stuff, and we’re the only ones on Sea Isle to sell live hermit crabs. The third ‘shop’ is called Below Sea Level, and that has the T-shirts and sweatshirts. We just started carrying the Puppie Love line, and we do well with that.”
Chris Sorenson, owner of Beachy Keen in Sea Isle City, N.J., said their best-sellers are imprinted stone coasters from Lantern Press which show beach scenes and/or are name-dropped with “Sea Isle City,” making them the perfect souvenir for customers who want something small to easily fit into a suitcase, yet are unique to a location. Sorenson added, “We encourage our imprinted modern items, such as our coasters. We have one with a heart made of stones that is wonderful for beach brides or an engagement gift. Coasters have a practical use and also bring back memories of your visit.”
Jennifer Kulikosky, owner of The Blue Coast in Hamburg, Pa., knows her store is quite a distance from the ocean, but that’s part of its appeal. Kulikosky said she wanted to bring “coastal gifts to people who are not near the coast—people who are ocean lovers but don’t get to the ocean. They enjoy seeing these things [coastal gifts] year-round.” Best-sellers in her 600-square-foot store include “the Para Vida line of jewelry—it ranges from $5 to $30. We also have a candle line called Surf’s Up out of Bellmawr, N.J., and the biggest one is about $22. The Four Oceans bracelet always does well. Most of what I sell are small things—small tabletop décor, small wall hangings. I don’t sell a ton of large pieces. It’s easier for someone to walk in and buy a $22 candle rather than a $300 wall hanging.”
One of the best ways to carry merchandise unique to a store, not just a tourist-heavy area, is to seek out items by local artisans, crafters, and vendors. Supporting other local businesses is a great way to market local talent and ensure your inventory is truly unique. “I work with local artisans and vendors as much as I possibly can,” Meeks said. “I think it’s important. And people like to know the story behind the products. They appreciate that little bit of information. I like to be able to say, ‘This woman makes this.’ I know many of the [vendors] personally.”
Sorenson said Beachy Keen has been trying to work with more local companies, and said they are looking forward to adding more local products to their merchandise mix. Sessoms said, “People want to come in and buy from local folks,” adding they carry Philadelphia, Pa.-based Asher chocolates and a few items hand-painted by local artists.
Retailers utilize different techniques to encourage sales. Being a pushy or aggressive salesperson is not preferable; retailers interviewed for this article said they try to be helpful and visible, but largely stay in the background while customers browse. “I encourage people to buy what they want and really need,” Kulikosky said. “I’ll tell them to think about it and come back. And they’ll do that—they know I’m not just pushing something on them to make a sale. I’m not a pushy salesperson—if I think something is right for them, I’ll tell them why I think they should buy it. I give them my honest opinion. It’s helped my business—my customers will tell others about the nice shop with the nice salesperson. I’ll encourage add-ons, but I’m not super pushy.” Because of their long history in the business community, Sessoms said they see many of the same customers year after year. “We have good quality merchandise. We don’t push anything. People come back year after year because we have good quality and good prices. We’re not pushy at all. We’ll just ask customers, ‘Is there anything you need?’ I like to let customers look through the store. Someone can come into our shop several times and never see it all. There’s just so much stuff in our store,” she said.
When it comes to merchandising, retailers often must be creative and make the most of their space. “I like products that go together,” Meeks said. “I don’t have much space [400 square feet], so I must make do. I group like items—bowls, glasses. I don’t have a theme, so much, as I just group similar items.”
Kulikosky said, “I merchandise by color. I think that’s important. And also by theme, so I’ll do sea horses, sea turtles, pineapples. I also change my store around about once a week. I’m constantly moving things around. Someone will not see something for weeks, then I’ll put it in a different place, and customers will think it’s new.” Sessoms utilizes glass display cases for much of their merchandise, so it is easy for customers to see.
Even in the coldest winter months, coastal gifts add a little bit of summer sunshine to any home or garden. Unique inventory and sea-inspired colors speak to customers looking to create their own little piece of paradise, wherever they may be.