Some Maui businesses plug in to online retailing giant Amazon

‘Liftoff’ program seeks isle small businesses to offer products to 300 million customers

Maui Raw owner Michelle Valentin prepares a box of her products for shipping to Amazon’s Fulfillment Center while taking part in Amazon’s Liftoff program Tuesday afternoon at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott, Maui. The program is seeking small businesses to sell products on Amazon, the online retailing giant with 300 million active customer accounts.
• The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui Raw owner Michelle Valentin prepares a box of her products for shipping to Amazon’s Fulfillment Center while taking part in Amazon’s Liftoff program Tuesday afternoon at the Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott, Maui. The program is seeking small businesses to sell products on Amazon, the online retailing giant with 300 million active customer accounts. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui Raw owner Michelle Valentin thought her organic, noncarbohydrate cracker and dried seaweed business was too small to have its products on Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer with 300 million active customer accounts.

But soon, the Kahului-based business will offer its products on the site, along with possibly 74 other Maui County small businesses because Amazon is seeking out local small businesses in communities as part of its “Liftoff” program.

“We know there are folks who are not yet on Amazon that we would like to have on Amazon,” said Cynthia Williams, vice president of Fulfillment by Amazon based in Seattle. She is on Maui this week for the event.

“We are excited to be here. We are excited to do the first Liftoff here,” she added, noting that she was pleased to team up with the Maui Chamber of Commerce for the program to feature Maui’s “high-quality products that are unique and special that our customer just loves.”

Williams is part of Fulfillment by Amazon. It helps vendors — now including some on Maui — by providing a one-stop shop for them to ship and store their products on the Mainland. Then, Amazon packs and ships the products when they’re ordered on the Amazon website.

Maui Dog Wear entrepreneur Bunny Spalding (left) gets help in setting up her Amazon account and sales inventory Tuesday afternoon from Amazon seller support associate Kara Mullet.
* The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui Dog Wear entrepreneur Bunny Spalding (left) gets help in setting up her Amazon account and sales inventory Tuesday afternoon from Amazon seller support associate Kara Mullet. * The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The chamber sought out Maui businesses and manufacturers to see which were interested and able to meet Amazon’s product demand. Amazon officials say a business participating in the Liftoff program does not need to be a huge manufacturer to gain a spot on the website.

On Tuesday, Valentin met one-on-one with Amazon officials through preset appointments at the Wailea Beach Resor – Marriott, Maui to get some handholding through the process.

The 75 vendors meeting with Amazon officials this week have already gone through some initial steps. Some, like Valentin, have products ready to be placed in a container on Maui to be shipped to a fulfillment center.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity to get our products out there,” Valentin said of Amazon, noting she has sold her products in stores on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island and at the Kula Upcountry Farmers Market.

One of her popular products is her cultured macadamia nut spreads, but since it’s perishable it won’t be on Amazon. The crackers and dried seaweed (nori) will be on the site.

Maui Raw has a website, but there’s no official shipping tool on the site. Customers just email Valentin orders, and she packs and ships them.

But “it takes like three to four hours to pack those boxes. . . . It takes forever. It’s a job in itself.”

So, when she learned about the program, which includes shipping to customers, Valentin took a chance.

“It made sense to partner up or team up . . . and see how the service will help us.”

Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap said the Amazon program drew a lot of interest from Maui businesses wanting to sell on Amazon, and the chamber is grateful that Amazon chose Maui to begin its Liftoff event.

“They went out on a limb to spend the extra money and come and do it from Maui,” she said.

Tumpap said the event helps island businesses expand their reach into the internet market, especially for those that would never have tried to sell on Amazon.

She added that the chamber and participating businesses this week will share their knowledge of the process.

“This is just another really great tool in our toolbox to help both Maui manufacturers and Maui retailers,” she said.

It was by chance that Williams was on vacation on Maui in March. She went into artist Sherri Reeve’s gallery in Makawao and fell in love with her products. She befriended Reeves (who is now selling on Amazon) and went to a dinner at Reeves’ home and met Tumpap.

Williams had the idea of the Liftoff event.

“I suddenly realized we had the perfect partner,” Williams said of the Maui chamber.

Steve Pillar, co-owner of Moku Pua, which manufacturers and sells organic, all-natural bath and body products, is extremely excited about the opportunity.

Pillar has provided products wholesale to stores, including Whole Foods, and has a company website to make sales.

But Pillar said printing up business labels and shipping items takes too much time.

“We are anticipating this opportunity, Fulfillment by Amazon, is going to increase our internet sales significantly and take one of the bigger burdens off of us in terms of fulfilling individual orders that we get,” said Pillar. He co-owns the business with wife and Moku Pua founder, Vicki Pillar.

He noted that shipping independently could improve profit margins, but factoring in man-hours spent shipping and being unable to do other business activities to maintain online orders, it made sense to have Amazon handle the shipping logistics and customer service.

(Costs can begin at around $39.99 a month for a professional seller, which is defined as selling more than 40 units a month; other costs are tacked on when sales are made and they vary.)

“It’s more cost-effective for us to have somebody do it (shipping) that does it well and does it consistently well,” Pillar said.

Moku Pua is looking at selling several products on Amazon, including an organic perfume oil; an aloe vera-based body mist spray; and artisan soaps.

Moku Pua previously had a store at the Maui Tropical Plantation, but owners decided to concentrate on its wholesale business.

Moku Pua sold on Amazon previously, but the Maui business fulfilled its own orders.

Pillar said he’s pleased that Amazon came to Maui to alleviate some of the frustration that can arise with the initial process of setting up the program.

“They are putting a huge commitment into Maui, and it’s absolutely, positively helping us as a small business on Maui. It’s taking a lot of the guesswork out of it.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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