BLUE RIVER — Plenty of McKenzie Highway travelers have driven past Christmas Treasures, the red and green store east of Blue River, and wondered how a business like that can survive way out here.
Even if the store is mobbed in November and December, what carries it through the rest of the year?
The answer is technology. The cozy, cabinlike store — which has more than 20 decorated trees, and carvings and collectibles on every shelf — sells a lot of ornaments to walk-in customers. But the vast bulk of its revenues come from Internet sales, said Pat Dibala, who with his wife, Nancy Wood, has owned the business for 19 years.
“You never know when a lady is going to come in and buy $1,000 worth of carvings, but it happens more online than it does in the store,” Dibala said.
While half a dozen shoppers browsed in the showroom 10 days before Christmas, a six-person crew in a warehouse in back took orders and packaged merchandise to be shipped to customers across the nation — and in some cases, the globe.
Dibala paused at the packaging line and stooped to read several invoices: “Here’s one to Mississippi. This is going to Colorado. Well, here’s one to Bend.”
“Yesterday we had an order from Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And three orders came in last night from Great Britain.”
“Most of our Facebook ‘likes’ are from Europe,” Dibala said.
Market research firm Forrester Research forecasts that online retail sales in the United States this holiday season will be up 15 percent from last year, hitting nearly $60 million — fueled mostly by online bargain hunters.
Christmas Treasures, a private, family-owned business, does not disclose financial figures. Dibala said he won’t know exactly how the business did this season until January, but annual sales have been off 10 percent to 20 percent from their peak in 2007.
Dibala grew up in Reedsport, and he and Wood were living in Naples Fla., when they decided to move to Blue River to open Christmas Treasures in 1993. The business took to the Internet in 1999 and was among the first to sell online many of the brands they carry.
They were quick out of the gate, Dibala said, because their then-16-year-old son, Steve Wood, offered to build a website for them if they bought him a computer.
They did, and for years their business flourished, enjoying top ranking in search results for search engines such as Google.
That all changed when online competition heated up about five years ago.
“We used to sit and watch the orders come in,” he said. “Now we have to fight (for them.)”
It’s an ongoing struggle to make even the first page of Google’s search results, Dibala said. A February upgrade to Google’s algorithm, which determines a website’s ranking based on more than 200 “signals” that calculate a page’s relevance to a query, ended up shoving Christmas Treasures way down the list for some merchandise, he said.
Google official Amit Singhal said in a February blog post that the upgrade affected about 12 percent of Google’s queries. The purpose of that algorithm change, and 500 others this year, is “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible,” he said.
Dibala doesn’t waste his time railing against forces beyond his control.
Instead, he focuses on decisions that are within his control, such as choosing which items to order, trying to predict what will be hot next season, and finding ways to get enough of it, but not so much that he’ll be stuck with excess inventory when the craze dies down, or a big-box store starts selling the same product at a deep discount.
That happened with LED lights, Dibala said.
In 2003, Christmas Treasures owners beat the pack to sell the more efficient lights online. But they lost their edge a few years later when every big-box store and corner drugstore carried them.
“We sold a ton of lights; now I can’t give them away,” Dibala said.
Dibala has designs on the extras, however. Next year, He plans to brighten up the 160-foot-tall Douglas fir tree outside the store, which he claims is the world’s tallest lighted tree.
The producers of a reality TV show recently asked Dibala to appear with his tree on the program, “Extreme Christmas Trees.”
He declined when he found out the program wouldn’t even mention the store.
So, later this evening, after another hectic Christmas season is over, Dibala and Wood can collapse on their couch, kick off their shoes and take a well-deserved break, right?
Not a chance.
On Jan. 12, the pair will head to the Atlanta Gift Mart, a huge annual trade show, to try to spot next Christmas’ winners and place their orders. The show is held so early in 2012 that many stores, including Christmas Treasures, haven’t had a chance to run reports on 2011 sales, Dibala said.
“A lot of people take their laptops” to try to do some of that number crunching while they’re at the show, he said.
Attendance is a must, however, to take advantage of early bird discounts and to ensure that the merchandise a retailer wants will be produced, particularly if it’s being made in Asia, which requires a long lead time.
“If manufacturers don’t get enough orders, they won’t make it,” Dibala said.