The unique retailing experience of island communities

The unique retailing experience of island communities

Walking stores in major cities always gives you a good sense of trends that are emerging in different parts of the world. Whether it’s a format change, a product change or how retailers are adopting new technologies, they all tend to be clearly visible if you visit enough stores, often enough.

On my travels over the years, I’ve visited stores in island communities and have picked up not so much trends, but idiosyncrasies around island retailing and their role in their community.

When I talk about an “island” I mean islands within a country: So Vancouver Island and Prince Edward Island at either side of Canada; the islands of Hawaii as part of America. All have similarities, even though they are parts of very different countries.

So here are a few island retailing observations based on my own recent visit to Tasmania’s King Island in the middle of Bass Strait. 

There tend to be only two types of shoppers on islands: The locals and those who have arrived by sea or air. Nobody arrives on a true island without having flown or sailed there. They’ve made a conscious decision to invest time and money in getting there. And even the type of boat or plane is different to your usual travel mode. I took an ice breaking ferry through the frozen ocean to get to Prince Edward Island, and this week a sail boat to King Island.

In fairness, a sail boat is an improvement on the last time I visited a Bass Strait island – Flinders Island. Last time I travelled 250 kilometres by kayak with two friends from the Victorian mainland. The point being that when you’re on the island you are going to make sure you shop and experience all of the unique things that island offers.

On King Island, apart from its stunning natural beauty and amazing beaches, there is the world famous King Island Dairy, beef and crayfish from the cold, clean Bass Strait waters. 

The stores on an island also have to cater for a wider range of shoppers’ needs as there tend not to be many retailers. The IGA in Currie sells grocery, liquor, hardware and furniture. IGA and the Foodworks next door are also the main importers and distributors of food to smaller retailers, restaurants and holiday accommodation around the island.

In the township of Grassy, Marie’s is a grocery store, fishing store, diner and re-seller of King Island beef, cheese and crays. She is also a legend within the sailing communities from Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and Tasmania’s North coast sailing clubs for her breakfast and ease of provisioning so close to the safe yacht anchorage of Grassy Harbour.

Innovative retailing is also evident on islands as people try new stuff to keep the locals and visitors entertained, or to just express themselves through their stores.

King Island Dairy’s chilled tasting room is fantastic. The Harbour Road coffee shop in Currie is very cool. The Kelp Craft shop in Grassy makes giftware from Kelp seaweed. The eclectic Boathouse Restaurant, owned by an artist called Caroline, on the Currie harbor front that has no food or staff; just fully laid tables with a kitchen, pots and pans and a BBQ for you to bring your own food and wine. Just arrive, drop some money in the “honesty duck”, cook and enjoy. Oh and wash up and reset the tables after yourself. It’s a clever idea that works well.

On islands, all of the things we take for granted in the cities have to be brought in by sea or air. Most of King Island’s food, beverage and fuel arrives on Searoad’s ship Mersey once a week, and on King Island Airlines mixed in with passengers if a seat is empty. All of this added freight cost is paid for by shoppers. That’s just how island retailing works. The sea and air route also takes King Island’s beef, dairy and crayfish back to Devonport in Tasmania and to Melbourne on the Australian mainland and to the world. 

I talked about the role of retailing in island communities. Stores are places where people meet to shop and catch up. Businesses collaborate by pinning notices in each other’s windows and create jobs for islanders of all ages and backgrounds. They tend to be supported by councils, with King Island’s Council doing a good job of showcasing as many businesses as they can on their own website. But retailers can only stay open if they make money. And most have had no formal retail training. IGA had to shut its Grassy store, as it couldn’t make money there. An independent retailer needs only to earn a living from that store so tends to be able to service their community on lower sales volumes, just like Marie.

I love working with retailers to help sell more stuff. So Marie and I spent half an hour walking her store, inside and out. We agreed to look at putting in a “sidewalk interrupter” to highlight her home-made pies and pasties. We also agreed to do a bit of digital marketing with the sailing clubs in port at Phillip Bay twice a year.

I also sent her a link to a new shopper marketing course “The Retail Trifecta” on the learning site I created the course to allow people who work in retail to see tips and techniques to improve the shopper experience around the world. Marie isn’t going to go on a retail course anytime soon. There are none to be had on the island, and she’s not going to leave the island anytime soon to do one. Islanders have a great phrase: “I never go anywhere unless I can drive there.” I hope her business thrives. Islands need their retailers.

If you live in Melbourne take a flight to King Island. It’s only $330 return and you’ll have a truly memorable experience.

(With thanks to Jim and Cheryl Searoad Freight in Grassy Harbour. The crew of Wayfarer for the crayfish. Rachel at King Island dairy, and Marie. And my skipper Andy B.)


Kevin A Moore is a retail expert and the chairman of Crossmark Asia Pacific Holdings and Mirador Retail Technology. He is also the founder of TheRoadToRetail.


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