For Anchorage businesses, going online pays off during COVID-19

Alaska Mill and Feed is aiming to launch a new website on Jan. 1, 2021. (Alaska Public Media/Abbey Collins)

With COVID-19 keeping many shoppers away from stores, some small businesses in Alaska are adapting, moving inventory online to reach customers they won’t see in person.

And many businesses are finding it’s worth the investment.

Alaska Mill & Feed in Anchorage sells a lot of different things, from pet food, gardening tools, and plants to those little booties you see dogs wearing in the winter.

Moving that inventory online is a big job, said Kimberly McCourtney, the company’s vice president. “From a data perspective, it’s a daunting and massive project.”

But it’s been paying off: McCourtney said the business has experienced a boom in online sales. As the pandemic has forced people to spend less time browsing the shelves, they’re spending more time on the internet. McCourtney says Alaska Mill & Feed is working hard to keep those sales local, competing with companies like Amazon.

The store was working on building their online presence even before the pandemic. This year, it’s become clear they’re moving in the right direction.

“The spring taught us rapidly that that growth and demand were there,” said McCourtney. “And in the fourth quarter, behind the scenes, we’ve been building out and vetting a new website which we hope to launch Jan. 1.”

The store offers curbside pickup and delivery, and has a lot of products online already, including Christmas trees.

“We can talk with customers on the phone,” said McCourtney. “We have it set up so that we can do a live video chat and we could show them trees that way, and they could pick out their favorite. So nothing, I think, is off the table with what we’re facing.”

The business has been around for 70 years, and its inventory is huge. McCourtney said eventually they want to have all their nearly 20,000 products online.

“We’re such an old company that you have like 30 or 40 years of items where now is a great opportunity to go back through and go ‘Do we even have this blue lid cover for a canning jar?’” she said.

It’s a priority, McCourtney said, and there are multiple employees who are working on it full time.

Online sales have also become a priority for Janet Gregory, who owns south Anchorage’s Over the Rainbow Toys.

“We’ve always had a modest website that I always regarded as a place to see what kind of store we were, what kind of product we sold,” said Gregory. “But it really wasn’t geared to drive website sales.”

Gregory is in the middle of the busiest time of the year for her toy store. She typically makes about 30% of the year’s sales during the last six weeks of the year. In 2020, online sales are a huge part of that.

“The number of web orders we’re receiving right now is at least ten times the volume we have received typically in the past,” said Gregory.

The Hoarding Marmot, in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood, in Dec. 2020. (Abbey Collins/Alaska Public Media)

Across the city, Tyler Yates is in charge of the website and online sales at the Hoarding Marmot. The outdoor consignment store launched a new online shop a few months ago.

“We started working on it, like, as soon as businesses locked down,” Yates said. “And it just took a little bit to get our old computer system to work with a new resale environment, new website environment.”

Yates said he’d been pitching the idea to his boss since before the pandemic, but the disruption in March was a big driver in actually making it happen.

Getting inventory from the store online takes some time, said Yates. He’s finding products, photographing them, and coming up with descriptions. So to start, they’ve been focusing on higher-dollar products.

“Selling, you know, a sticker, for $0.50 isn’t always worth it,” said Yates. “But selling a pair of skis for $300, that works for us.”

Yates said customers have been taking advantage of a feature that allows them to check their consignment account balance online. And, he said, the store has seen an uptick in sales since the new website launched.