Seattle import stores face fierce competition from China and online retailers

import goods from China, import export, wholesale
Istanbul Imports is having a “closing” sale in preparation for a renovation that will close the store for the entire month of August and give the store the vibe of a Turkish bistro. (Photo by Allison Int-Hout)

With import stores across the country struggling with changing regulations and growing transportation costs, it’s easy to guess why Istanbul Imports in downtown Fremont might have a huge “STORE CLOSING” sign hanging above the door.

But the savvy import shopper might be surprised to find out that, unlike what the signs outside suggest, the owners aren’t throwing in the towel.

They’re expanding.

Istanbul Imports has been open at its location on North 34th Street for 10 years, with the owners Gencer Gokeri and his wife Sureyya selling rugs, clothing, home decor and jewelry from Turkey and neighboring regions.

Now, after 22 years in the import business, they plan to remodel the location to introduce cooking classes, spices, and Turkish groceries to the store – an expansion that surprises anyone familiar with the rarity of true import stores.

The growing scarcity of traditional import stores, where the owners or employees travel to foreign countries and hand pick the items they will sell back in the US, can be tied to, among other things, the rise of the internet.

“The importing business boomed right after the World’s Fair, and then continued on up to the early 2000s. Then, after the internet boom, everything had a gradual decline,” said Hua Nguyen from Shiga’s Imports in Seattle’s University District.

Gencer Gokeri, the owner of Fremont's Istanbul Imports, sits on a stack of handmade, tribal rugs that he brought over from Turkey. (Photo by Allison Int-Hout)
Gencer Gokeri, the owner of Fremont’s Istanbul Imports, sits on a stack of handmade, tribal rugs that he brought over from Turkey. (Photo by Allison Int-Hout)

Now, customers don’t have to walk down the street to their neighborhood import store to get a funky, foreign piece – they can get it on Amazon, overstock.com, or from Pier 1’s website.

Perched on a pile of handmade, tribal rugs in the back of his store, each of which he hand picked from different small villages across Turkey, Gencer Gokeri explains the other big challenge facing importers.

“Everything gets taxed.”

Simply put. Gokeri usually visits Turkey once or twice a year, and he shells out $20,000 to $40,000 each time to pack a 29-foot storage container with goods. He works with a broker who takes care of all of the paperwork on the items, and then pays the U.S. anywhere from 4.5% to 11% tax on the imports, depending on how each one is categorized.

Even though a 4.5% tax, the rate for home goods items, on $20,000 worth of imports is a hefty sum on its own – almost $1,000 – it isn’t Gokeri’s only import cost.

Besides taxes, Gokeri said he can almost always count on some kind of customs charge, as well.

After 9/11, Gokeri said, he paid for one of his storage compartments to be searched three or four times during its journey, and customs in Montreal once charged him $600 after they felt the need to search his compartment using a high-tech, x-ray gun.

Import goods from Turkey, Istanbul Imports
This pin cushion is one of the many handmade items the the owners of Istanbul Imports bring back from Turkey to sell in their store. (Photo by Allison Int-Hout)

Often, he says, the searches lead to damage to the imports, like when workers use knives to cut the wrapping off of rugs and slice right through the rug itself. “Fragile” stickers don’t make much of a difference either, he says, since about 10% of his ceramics consistently arrive broken.

These struggles with mass shipping are what keep many import store owners from being able to travel like Gokeri does and buy their items in person, according to Monique Tran, one of the owners of La Tienda Folk Art Gallery in Ballard.

La Tienda used to be a traditional import store like Istanbul Imports, where the former owner bought all of the items in Mexico and brought them back to Seattle herself. But because of the increasing costs of travel and shipping, La Tienda now buys 99% of it’s merchandise from a wholesale supplier.

“You have to buy a lot to make the trip worth while,” Tran said.

And like almost all American companies, import stores are facing one other big obstacle. You guessed it – Chinese competitors.

Gokeri said that rug makers in China can make a tribal-style rug that appears almost identical to the Turkish ones – at least to the untrained eye – for only 10% of the cost. This means that the Chinese rugs carry a much lower price tag once they arrive in the U.S., enticing customers to buy their next rug at a chain import store, where the prices might be cheaper and the sales people probably didn’t handpick the items.

Discount import inventory
Leather sandals sit in a basket outside Istanbul Imports as the owners try to clear out inventory before they close for renovation next month. (Photo by Seth Pierson)

But what sets chain stores like that apart from Gokeri’s, he said, is that every one of the items in his inventory – which is worth almost $1 million – has a story.

“I can’t tell you what I ate yesterday, but I can tell you how much I bought this rug for, who made it and where it’s from,” he said.

And this investment in his inventory works.

Gokeri, who is in the store almost every day with his wife and employs only one other, part-time employee, sells 70 to 80% of everything he buys. At the end of the day, it’s these consistently strong sales that keep this Turkish-born store owner committed to the traditional import goods industry.

After all, he says, “the American dream is all about paying the bills.”

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