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Island Entrepreneurs Find a Niche With 'Made in Hawaii' Merchandise

September 02, 2003|B.J. Reyes | Associated Press

HONOLULU — Years of selling her Niihau shell leis and handmade jewelry at craft fairs on the mainland has taught Gale Sagucio a thing or two about finding a niche market.

"A lot of people are looking for stuff that is made here in Hawaii," said Sagucio, owner of JJ Ohana, which has been in business in the Kauai community of Hanapepe since 1995.

"They go bonkers," she added. "They go, 'Ooh, Hawaii.' "

These days, hundreds of other purveyors of "made in Hawaii" merchandise are finding out the same thing.

Whether it's an aloha shirt for casual Friday, a dashboard hula doll for the convertible or fresh pineapple and macadamia nuts for that end of summer luau, merchants say Hawaii-made products are in demand like never before.

"Everything that has a Hawaiian feel, look, taste, smell, people are just snapping up," said Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for HiloHattie.com, the online retail arm of Hilo Hattie, considered the largest maker and seller of Hawaii-themed products.

Without providing exact figures, Mielke said online sales through July 31 were up 86% over a year ago, adding that Hilo Hattie itself, with 13 stores in Hawaii, California, Nevada and Arizona to complement the Web site, records annual sales in the "tens of millions."

"Everything Hawaii is very, very fashionable these days," Mielke said.

David Nada would agree.

He's a program manager in the state office that traditionally has been charged with raising the profile of Hawaii's cultural products and resources.

"I think the word 'Hawaii' has this connotation -- a magic -- about the island and also the quality of the products that are manufactured here," he said. The demand, "really has grown over the years."

Although the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism doesn't track the sales of Hawaii-made goods, many point to the annual Made in Hawaii Festival as a barometer for measuring the popularity of island goods.

When the festival first opened eight years ago, some scoffed at the notion that anybody in the islands -- let alone tourists or people on the mainland -- would want to buy the products, and it started with just 61 merchants.

"There was a time when consumers considered things made here not being superior, so they would prefer something made on the mainland," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who made the opening remarks at the most recent festival.

"I think that attitude has changed completely."

This year's three-day weekend festival featured a record 410 exhibitors and attracted an estimated 37,000 people, said Ed Thompson, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Assn., a sponsor. He estimated that merchants generated $3 million to $5 million.

"Many of the vendors actually sold out of products," Thompson said. "Some of them made comments like ... by Friday night they had sold more products than all three days last year."

For Sagucio, the handcrafted jewelry maker from Hanapepe, this year's was her fifth festival.

"This is the biggest," she said. "They have a larger variety of stuff."

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Sagucio said she didn't travel to the mainland as much for craft shows, but she's trying to make up for it by setting up a retail Web site.

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