(Kitsap Sun (Bremerton, WA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 31--POULSBO -- What began as the Chow brothers' hobby now fills a warehouse.
Boxed LEGO sets are stacked high in the Poulsbo distribution center where their company, Chowren Toys, is already stocking up for the holiday retail season. Plastic pirates, superheroes, Jedi knights and ninjas await shipment to living rooms around the country.
An official, independent LEGO dealer since 2009, Chowren Toys has outgrown its 6,400-square-foot warehouse in the Twelve Trees Business Park and will add about 5,000-square feet of office space in coming months. It's a far bigger operation than Jack and Jason Chow imagined when they fell into the brick toy trade 13 years ago.
The brothers had loved LEGOS since they were kids. As adults they stockpiled boxes of bricks in their garages and sold extra sets on eBay to finance their obsession.
"Honestly, it was never our intention to start this business," Jack, 41, said. "As the years went on our sales and inventory expanded to where we felt we could no longer treat it or operate it as a hobby."
Kitsap parents who go looking for a Chowren Toys storefront won't find one. The Chows sell exclusively online, supplying new LEGO lines and revered collectibles to a vast fan base, all from the nondescript warehouse in Poulsbo.
Chowren Toys is just one example from a subtle explosion of e-commerce businesses in Kitsap County. Though by no means a new phenomenon, the number of Internet-based retailers and the volume of online sales in the county ballooned in recent years, growing in bounds during the recession, when traditional retail outlets struggled (see graphic).
Talk of e-commerce usually centers on Internet superstores like Amazon.com, but Kitsap County is home to a diverse collection of under-the-radar retailers, all harnessing the web to reach customers around the globe. Some are store owners who added websites to augment sales. Some tested their products online before opening brick-and-mortar shops. Still others are craftspeople and collectors peddling wares on hosted markets like Etsy and eBay.
RIDING THE WAVE
Hal Cook was a boater with a big idea.
The Bainbridge Island resident worked in the maritime industry for decades before he launched Go2Marine.com, a worldwide boating supply store, in 2000. He saw Internet-based sales as a way of serving customers across borders.
"I'd done a lot of traveling throughout the world," Cook said. "I realized how hard it was to get parts, let alone information, in different time zones and in different countries."
Fifteen years later Cook, his partners, and a staff of 16 oversee a virtual catalog of more than 200,000 marine parts from an office near the Winslow Safeway. Their business keeps growing. Go2Marine opened a 34,000-square-foot distribution center in Ballard last year.
As the online marketplace becomes more crowded, Cook said his company emphasizes customer service to keep buyers coming back.
"We were fortunate we had a head start," he said. "But we've also made it our policy with each new hire to have them connect with the customer as much as possible."
KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN
Not every e-commerce seller dives headfirst into online sales. Many small businesses turn to the Internet to supplement sales made to walk-in customers.
Liberty Bay Books in downtown Poulsbo started selling online about 10 years ago and makes almost its entire collection available on its website. Web sales are a tiny percentage of the store's overall business, said owner Suzanne Droppert. But her main concern is giving shoppers options.
"We're trying to offer our customers all the possibilities and any opportunity they wanted to shop," Droppert said.
In Bremerton, Laura Kneib went through a reverse process of sorts to open her store, which sells handmade soap crafted from recycled vegetable oil. After debuting at the Bremerton Farmers Market, she opened an online shop and was soon shipping her F.R.O.G. soap across the country.
Brisk web sales gave Kneib the confidence to move her operation from her house to a Fifth Street storefront this spring. Customers who were introduced to her products online are seeking her out in person. Offline sales of F.R.O.G. Soap have caught up to online orders.
"It's been big being here," Kneib said.
Someday, the Chow brothers would like to open a Chowren Toys location where customers can play before they purchase. For now, they say selling LEGOS online gives them flexibility to cater to their customers' needs while also making time for their families.
"Our working schedule has alway revolved around our children's schedule and it still does," Jack said.
Chowren Toys is online at www.chowrentoys.com and on Facebook.
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