Down East 2013 ©
There was a time when seasonal communities such as Camden, Boothbay Harbor, Ogunquit, and Old Orchard Beach rolled up the sidewalks after Labor Day. Then, cheered on by state tourism officials, the so-called “shoulder season” began stretching to Columbus Day and beyond. These days, local chambers of commerce promote events that encourage many summer businesses to remain open, at least on weekends, through Christmas.
Increasingly in the twenty-first century, however, Maine shop owners, having discovered that it never snows on the Internet, are finding ways to squeeze a little extra revenue from their seasonal businesses by setting up virtual storefronts that take advantage of digital traffic long after the last tourist has left Vacationland. Online sales can’t compete with August shopping revenue, but the arrival of a few thousand extra dollars in the dead of winter somehow seems twice as sweet.
“Web sites are extremely cost-efficient,” explains Rich Brooks, whose Portland-based Web design and marketing firm, Flyte New Media, specializes in small businesses. “Retail shops just need to create Web sites that are professional, easy to use, and search engine-friendly.”
In business, of course, nothing is ever that simple.
Here are seven seasonal Maine businesses that have, with varying degrees of success, supplemented their income through innovative Web sites and e-commerce.
Mustard Down East
Raye’s Mustard, founded in Eastport in 1900, has been in the Raye family for four generations. According to co-owner Karen Raye, who purchased the business in 2005 with her husband, Kevin, Raye’s is “the last stone ground mustard mill left in North America, maybe the western hemisphere.” The venerable mustard mill went online seven years ago.
Initially, Raye’s Mustard used a third-party online retail site, Gourmet Food Mall, to sell on the Internet, but the company now has a shopping cart feature on its own Web site. That means a lot more work packing and shipping online orders, but Karen Raye says it’s been worth it. “Internet sales are up 14 percent over last year overall,” she says.
Raye’s Mustard is primarily (70 percent) a wholesale business. Internet sales only account for 15 percent of total sales, but — talk about extending your busy season online! — Karen Raye says: “The impact of the Internet for the month of December was 75 percent of our business.”
Gift baskets for the holidays sold very well online, incorporating products by other Maine companies. Raye’s uses Facebook and Twitter, publishes an e-mail newsletter, and sends out promotional announcements online as well.
“Whenever we do it, it’s amazing,” says Karen Raye. “We immediately see orders.”
Raye’s Mustard, Eastport, 800-853-1903, www.rayesmustard.com 
Popcorn from Boothbay to Portland
Paul Roberts and his wife, Julie, opened Coastal Maine Popcorn Company in Boothbay Harbor in June 2008 and launched their Web site five months later. Right from the start, Paul Roberts had projected Internet sales as 15 percent of his business, but in its first year of operation Coastal Maine Popcorn did “between 18 and 22 percent” of its sales online.
The early success of Coastal Maine Popcorn has a lot to do with the unique nature of the business (Google “popcorn” and “Maine” and Coastal Maine Popcorn Company is the first Web site to appear) and the simplicity of its Web site, professionally designed by Firefly Design of Damariscotta. The Web site makes it easy to purchase containers of air-popped popcorn in flavors ranging from traditional butter and caramel to maple, marshmallow, Parmesan garlic, and rosemary.
Roberts says corporate gift giving has been a big boon to business. A corporate CEO may not be apt to wander into his shop, but he can go online and with a few keystrokes purchase all the popcorn his customers and management team can eat. As we talk, Roberts is just packing the last of eleven three-and-half-gallon tins for a corporate customer.
“That’s like a medium to good day in July and August,” he enthuses.
Another reason the Web works for Coastal Maine Popcorn is that it has always been a deliberate part of the Robertses’ business plan. The couple hopes to have a chain of gourmet popcorn stores. To that end, Coastal Maine Popcorn extended its season this year by opening a second store on Exchange Street in Portland just before Christmas. (In Boothbay Harbor, Coastal Maine Popcorn is open June to October and for four weekends before Christmas in Boothbay Harbor.) Even so, the Robertses recognized that people are on the Internet year-round, and they made their growth plans accordingly.
“People tend to put up a Web site without a business plan,” observes Rich Brooks. “But you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I in business?’ ‘What are my goals?’ You build a Web site not for your business, but for your customers.”
And that’s exactly what Paul Roberts has done, though he’s hardly finished. “I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have and know how to do to increase our Web sales,” he says. “Once the Portland store is rolling, I need to start doing a blog.”
Coastal Maine Popcorn Company, 12 Oak St., Boothbay Harbor and 43 Exchange St., Portland, 207-633-2266, www.coastalmainepopcorn.com 
Puzzling Over Old Orchard Beach
Board Silly Puzzles and Games is about as low-tech a company as you’re ever going to find. Owner Missy Shupe opened the store atop the broad avenue that leads down to the amusement park, the boardwalk, and Old Orchard Beach itself in 2005 expressly to sell classic, old-fashioned entertainments — jigsaw puzzles, board games, marbles, yo-yos, pick-up sticks, jacks — no electronic games whatsoever.
A former bookkeeper for a computer software company, Shupe understands the need for a Web site in this day and age and says that “it does draw people to us.”
While she estimates that online sales account for “less than 10 percent” of total sales, Shupe says her Web site has been a very effective tool for generating sales of one of her niche markets — custom-made puzzles, of which Board Silly sells more than three hundred a year.
“People can send us a digital image,” Shupe explains. “I create a puzzle, my husband, Ken, does the cutting, and we send it back to them. They can do it all online.”
In addition to the Board Silly Web site, Shupe finds that “a lot of people see us on Facebook.” People have “friends” on Facebook, but businesses have “fans.” Board Silly currently has 127 fans.
“Blogging is key for e-commerce sites, but social media are very cost-effective and it’s fun,” says marketing consultant Rich Brooks. “If you’re passionate and attentive about what you’re doing, you can succeed in social media.”
Board Silly reduces its hours in the off-season and Shupe can examine her Web site more closely, but during the summer it stays open from 10 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. This leaves Shupe — as passionate as she is about puzzles and games — with little time for anything other than minding the store. “My husband and I don’t have a lot of time to sit and massage the Web site,” she says.
Board Silly Puzzles & Games, 44 Orchard St., Old Orchard Beach, 207-934-4020, www.boardsillyonline.com 
Fine Jewelry in Perkins Cove
Carol and Thomas Young opened Swamp John’s, a little seaside crafts gallery that sells fine art jewelry and hand blown glass, in Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove in 1971, but they only launched their Web site two and a half years ago at the urging of their daughter, Jacqueline.
“The Web presence helps me make sales,” says Carol Young. “People see us online and end up coming in and making purchases.”
Today the Swamp John’s Web site only features about 2 percent of the store’s inventory and Internet sales account for less than 4 percent of Swamp John’s total sales. Carol Young says she has found it difficult to market one-of-a-kind jewelry online because of the need to constantly update the Web site. (Her daughter managed the Web site until she started her own career as a teacher.)
“I’m thinking it probably would have been better to hire a real Web master,” says Young. “I would like to see my sales increase because of my Web presence, but I’m going to have to get some help.”
Flyte New Media’s Rich Brooks says, “She just needs a content management system. Then you can do it yourself as long as you have a keyboard and a mouse.”
Carol Young, however, isn’t sure she’d have time to constantly update her Web site. “It’s been good for getting customers to come in to the store,” she says.
“It certainly could be optimized, but I need someone to help me there for sure.”
Swamp John’s, 106 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit, 207-646-9414, www.swampjohns.com 
Gifts from Camden
Meg Fisher Quijano’s grandmother started the Smiling Cow gift shop in Boothbay Harbor in the 1920s. Her parents opened a second Smiling Cow in Camden in 1940 (and advertised, incidentally, in the first issue of Down East), and Quijano bought the popular Camden store in 1980. Every year she closes up shop at the beginning of November with a big half-price sale. But beginning in December 2008, she took a leap and launched a Smiling Cow Web site, a virtual gift shop featuring fifty to sixty of the best-selling items from the thousands in her summer inventory.
“This year, we had five times more sales than last year from mid-November through December,” says Quijano. Like most business owners she keeps her revenue figures close to the vest, but she admits to earning just under ten thousand dollars from Internet sales last year. “I see this as a building time. I’ll assess it seriously in five years.
“As much as selling products, it is keeping the Smiling Cow in people’s minds,” she says. “When we’re closed, we’re not forgotten.”
Internet marketing guru Rich Brooks says staying on people’s minds during the off-season is vital to any business’ success. He suggests that businesses “create incentives for people to subscribe to your e-mail newsletter,” and that is just what the Smiling Cow has done, compiling an impressive 2,500-person e-mail list from Quijano’s in-store guest book by holding monthly drawings for a free gift.
The Smiling Cow not only sends out a monthly newsletter to its customers, it also posts an occasional blog. And blogging, says Rich Brooks, is one of the most important things a small business can do to create traffic on its Web site.
“They should all have blogs,” says Brooks. “A blog is a Web page on steroids.” A blog not only promotes communication between a business and its customers, but each blog posting also becomes like a new Web page.
Meg Quijano understands that e-commerce is an investment in the future. “I do foresee a time when e-commerce will become an important part of my business,” she says. “If I go to sell the business, or my family takes over, it will probably be really important to have it as part of the retail mix, especially since Maine is so seasonal.”
Smiling Cow, 41 Main St., Camden, 207-236-3351, www.smilingcow.com 
Fine Art in Millinocket
Painter Marsha Donahue opened North Light Gallery in downtown Millinocket in 2004 after having managed art galleries in Portland for many years. A Web site was always part of her plan to pioneer a fine art gallery at the gateway to the North Maine Woods.
“If I couldn’t get high-speed Internet here,” says Donahue, “I wasn’t going to attempt to open a gallery.”
Donahue discovered that high-speed Internet service was available in a three-block downtown area and established her gallery in the former Fuller’s Furniture Store. With permission from Greenhut Galleries in Portland, where she had been the assistant director, she cloned the gallery Web site and began experimenting with what keywords to include on her site to attract Internet traffic.
Donahue’s keyword analysis found that words such as “art,” “moose,” and “Mount Katahdin” helped direct Internet browsers to her site, but the names of artists associated with the North Woods, such as “Marsden Hartley” and “Carl Sprinchorn,” did not. She also found that including the words “Bar Harbor” actually helped attract potential buyers from two hours away on the coast.
Initially, Donahue followed the conventional wisdom that keywords should be embedded behind her Web address, but then she learned that keywords help attract traffic better if they are included in the text. “So I re-did the Web site to put key words in the content.”
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is one of the services that Internet marketing firms often perform for clients, but Donahue has had good luck optimizing the North Light site herself.
Rich Brooks advises that anything a business can do — blogs, e-newsletters, SEO — to make connections and create links to other Web sites is also helpful. “Web sites other than yours need to be linked to you,” he says. “Each incoming link is a vote of confidence.”
“I try to stay connected to the outside world,” Donahue agrees. “It’s crucial to doing business here.” Donahue uses the Constant Contact subscription service to send monthly e-mail newsletters to the four hundred people on her list. “Everybody on my newsletter list has already been a customer,” she notes. “The customers you already have are your best customers.”
Not only has the Constant Contact service helped North Light Gallery make money, it has also saved it money. Donahue had been spending $2,400 a year mailing exhibition announcements. Now she spends just $360 a year on Constant Contact to send the same announcements electronically. And it has paid off.
“From January through May, 62 percent of my sales are Internet, 38 percent walk-in,” reports Donahue. “From June through November, 71 percent are walk-in and 29 percent are Internet. The total sales from January through May almost exactly equal the figure for sales from walk-in from June through November, with Internet sales being the icing on the cake.”
North Light Gallery, 256 Penobscot St., Millinocket, 207-732-4414, www.artnorthlight.com 
Candy in Boothbay Harbor
Orne’s Candy Store has been a fixture in downtown Boothbay Harbor since 1885. The Webster family purchased it in 1960. The busy little candy store with its heavenly scent of chocolate is open 10-to-10 seven days a week in the summer, but Orne’s closes up shop around the end of October.
Co-owner Faith Foster says Orne’s has had a Web site for ten years. She tends to view her Web site more as an advertising medium than as a revenue enhancer, with online sales accounting for a small amount of the company’s total business.
Foster says the e-mail newsletter Orne’s sends out to its five hundred subscribers is as much about “the Maine mystique” as it is about almond butter crunch and peanut butter fudge. “We continue to do it because it’s a personal touch,” she says.
One reason the Orne’s Web site isn’t more lucrative may be that customers can’t purchase candy directly online. Rather, Orne’s uses its Web site to publish an online winter catalogue. Customers then have to phone or fax in their orders.
Foster explains that Orne’s found it “price prohibitive” to subscribe to the secure payment system Verisign. “It cost us more for the secure site than the amount of candy we sold online,” she says.
Rich Brooks of Flyte New Media suggests Orne’s Candy Store might be better off using PayPal. “There’s no down payment and no monthly fee,” says Brooks. You pay 2.9 percent plus thirty cents per transaction. And for an additional thirty dollars a month, you can use it and it doesn’t show that it’s PayPal. It stays on your Web site.”
Orne’s Candy Store, 11 Commercial St., Boothbay Harbor, 207-633-2695, www.ornescandystore.com 
7 Tips For Squeezing Money From the Net
1. Get Blogging Letting your customers know what you’re up to in the off-season keeps you on their minds — which means you’ll already be at the top of their to-do list when they return next summer.
2. Talk Like a Mainer Using the right words on your Web site is the key to Search Engine Optimization, meaning your site pops up at the top of a Google search. Think “Katahdin” instead of “mountain” and “moose” instead of “animal.”
3. Simplify Your Site Using a service like PayPal makes it easier for customers to order directly from you. If you want your site to be more than an online billboard for your business, you need to be able to accept credit cards.
4. Become a Socialite Twittering and interacting on Facebook are a part of an increasing number of people’s lives. Keep in touch with your customers through every social media program available to you.
5. Make It a Priority A Web site needs to be a key part of your business plan right from the beginning, instead of an afterthought. Think of your long-term goals and build (or have a professional designer create) the Web site that will satisfy your customers’ needs.
6. Target Online Niches Think of aspects of your business that are particularly well suited to Web traffic. Do you have a product, whether it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a coffee mug, that you can customize with consumers’ digital photographs? These types of interactions build brand loyalty — and can bring in real dollars.
7. Remember the Sale In the end, it doesn’t matter how people found their way to your cash register. If your Web site is helping sell your products, it’s a success.