On the wall of Paul Miller’s office hangs a framed drawing of a western-style building. A porch runs past the front two doors and four beams support the roof. A long sign on top of the roof reads “Trustworthy.”
“We started out with that little store on the wall,” said Miller, Trustworthy Hardware and Fishing owner.
On opening day of his new building — more than 12,000 square feet larger — a line of people stretched from the door and around the building, waiting, he said.
“The fire department closed us down five times that week,” he said, because customers exceeded the store’s capacity of 850 people.
After nearly 27 years, the 73-year-old Miller said his business still sells fishing tackle, gardening supplies and hardware to his local core of customers.
This is the first year he has been down in sales — only 5 percent — and he blames the summer’s king salmon fishery closure, he said.
The bulk of his customers are fishermen and gardeners, he said.
But Miller is not the only Soldotna business that has tapped into a niche market. Both Beemun’s Bike and Ski Loft and Wilderness Way have attracted their own style of customer.
Beemun’s has been selling bicycles for about 20 years, manager Brad Carver said. Until it started stocking cross-country skis and snowboards about 13 years ago, its winter sales were low, Carver said.
“It was more of something to keep me busy in the winter,” he said.
But the cross-country ski sales have proven much more, he said. Not only are they Beemun’s main revenue, but they have also defined their niche, he said.
Many of Beemun’s ski sales are to junior high school ski teams, he said. Carver said he offers low prices on skis and ski tune up for those teams.
“It’s been a good deal for both of us,” he said.
A lot of Beemun’s youth skiers are members of the Tsalteshi Trails Youth Ski Program, he said. By selling the youth skis, he said Beemun’s market stays in the community as it grows.
“I think the younger you start kids, the better chance you have in making it a lifelong sport,” he said. “It just creates a healthy community and happier people that are getting out to enjoy the outdoors.”
Often many of the parents buy skis after their children expose them to it, he said.
Sara Hepner, Tsalteshi Trails Youth Ski Program coordinator, said Beemun’s encourages skiing in the community. Beemun’s has made skiing affordable, she said, through low prices and rentals for program members.
She said the staff know a lot about their inventory. “The best thing I can say about the folks at Beemun’s is they have worked hard to educate themselves about skis,” she said.
While competition from Wilderness Way does not hurt Beemun’s business, Carver said it is difficult competing with the internet.
“I really shop hard on end-of-the-year closeouts and pass that onto customers,” he said. “It’s getting tougher and tougher every year.”
He said the internet offers items that Beemun’s cannot always stock, and he can’t do anything about that. But with high shipping costs, items are often more expensive, he said.
Miller agrees. He said shipping is too expensive for his customers.
Wilderness Way Co-owner Brian Richards said competing with the internet is an issue for his wife, Nikiesha Richards, and his business because the internet offers a wider range of products and often at lower prices.
But there is another side to it, he said. The internet has created a more educated customer that knows exactly what he or she wants, he said. And although customers can find lower prices online, Wilderness Way has kept its following with its range of products and close customer service, he said.
Wilderness Way specializes in higher end outdoor apparel — Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, Simms and Osprey.
“We just cater to the people that are willing to spend a little more for the good product,” he said. “I think a lot of our customers recognize that they can spend a lot more money and how it will last them for a long time.”
While their customers range from the weekend warrior to the hardcore, Richards said the majority of them are local.
He said many will walk in to share stories about their recent adventures or give him and his staff first-hand product reviews.
“That’s when I make a lot of my friends,” he said. “It’s people that come in. We try to provide that kind of small-town atmosphere.”
Another way Wilderness Way fights internet prices is that its customers understand buying locally supports the community, he said.
“It’s not the tourists that keep us running; it’s the local people,” he said.
Richards said he does not compete much with Beemun’s or Trustworthy.
Beemun’s and Wilderness Way operate in a similar market, but they have each found their niche, Richards said. The two businesses will even send each other customers when one business does not have the product a customer is looking for, Richards said.
Competition is kept low with Trustworthy also because it, too, has created its own niche, Richards said.
“It’s too small of a town to try and compete,” he said. “There’s so many other things already competing with small businesses.”
Miller said marketing is his secret to keeping his customer base.
But the third week of July — when tourists flood the Kenai Peninsula to fish — is the busiest week for him. That is when he ramps up his advertisements. He said he directs a lot of customers via word of mouth from the river banks, and his Trustworthy boat helps, too.
To keep his market, he also cuts his prices below area box stores, he said.
“We were all quivering when Walmart came,” he said. “(But) in some cases we’re about 40 percent lower than Walmart.”
His membership with the buying groups Worldwide Distributors and Jensen Distribution allows him to do that, he said. From them he is able to buy merchandise at low prices and they can ship to him in 10 days.
Competing with the internet is also easy, he said; he just ignores computers.
“I told my sons and I told my wife that I’m going to be computer-free until the day I die,” he said. “I just think it was a simpler time.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.