How This Small Retailer Wins the Holidays By Completely Transforming Itself Every Year
Portland, Maine’s Sea Bags is recycling old boat sails into all manner of holiday-themed products.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Nothing harshes a holiday mellow like the realization that all those festive bags, boxes, and gift wrappings produce around 40 million tons of waste annually. Each year Sea Bags concocts a new way to bring that number down.
"I really struggle with the paper gift bags that get thrown away in the landfill," says Beth Shissler, president of the company, which makes nautically themed totes, handbags, and other products from boat sails that have reached the ends of their useful lives.
Every holiday season Sea Bags, which is headquartered on a working wharf in Portland, Maine, introduces one new product that is both a gift and a substitute for disposable packaging. This year it's a beverage bucket that holds up to six bottles of wine or fancy condiments. Previous seasons have produced a bucket bag--meant to replace paper hostess bags--and a wine bag with a patch on which 10 people can write their names as they pass bottles of vino through their friend networks. All are made out of old sails.
The bags and buckets are part of a 50- to 60-item holiday line that Sea Bags produces fresh each season. The designs printed on canvas ideally blend the seasonal with the nautical. A lobster claw grasping a candy cane. A nutcracker wearing a sailor's hat.
Roughly a third of Sea Bags's ecommerce revenue is generated during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That is also peak time for its hundreds of wholesale accounts and 12 company stores. "We open Thanksgiving night at midnight in our Freeport location, and the line will go all the way around the block, almost to L.L. Bean," says Shissler. "Our Portland store opens at 8 a.m. on Black Friday, and we will have a line going all the way out to the street starting at 7."
To prepare, the business ratchets up production the week after Labor Day. (If you're in Portland on November 25, Sea Bags is welcoming visitors to the plant for Small Business Saturday.) As the focus shifts from tourist season to the holidays, the company's dye sublimation machine, which allows Sea Bags to create custom products based on shoppers' own graphics, kicks into high gear. Custom orders are reliably among the top five holiday sellers, Shissler says.
Raw material is fortuitously abundant this time of year. As the weather turns cold, boat owners bring in their crafts for the winter. "They start looking at all their gear and saying, 'This sail is stretched out or this sail has a tear in it,'" says Shissler. The Sea Bags proposition: Give us your sail and, in return, you'll receive a product made from it. The boat owner gets something meaningful he can keep or give as a gift. And Sea Bags gets canvas with which to help meet seasonal demand.
The holidays are also ideal for reaching new customers. Every season Sea Bags plants a pop-up store in a promising market. This year it's in a mall at Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, near downtown Boston. Red life rings and green glass float balls hang from the ceiling.
Sea Bags is also experimenting, for the first time, with print holiday catalogs, which it is distributing through partnerships with Down East and Maine magazines, as well as Stonewall Kitchen, another Pine Tree State stalwart. And from October 1 through the end of the year, the business is donating 20 percent of sales from selected products to breast-cancer awareness organizations. "People feel good about giving gifts that pay it forward," says Shissler.