Around the World—Right in Madison

Around the World—Right in Madison

hink back to a lovely trip you’ve taken. Perhaps it was to the hot, sunny beaches and seductive nightlife of Miami, the frenetic pace and cultural arts of New York City or a trip to the sleepy yet picturesque “Wine Route” of Alscace, France. For Chris and Sue Ellibee, co-owners of European Market, an online gift website, the latter is among their favorites of the countless trips they’ve taken to Western Europe. And celebrating their travels and bringing home a piece of that special trip is what their website, europeanmarket.us, is all about. The pair launched the website in November 2009 and currently live in Madison. I spoke with Chris Ellibee about their months-old business and why they carry sixteen types of chocolate on the website (it’s Ellibee’s favorite).

Shayna: Why did you start European Market?Chris Ellibee: We would travel to Europe and every time we’d go people would ask if we could bring back chocolate, or someone would say I’m looking for a particular kind of ornament. So we found when we’d go on these vacations we’d come back with all of this stuff. After like the third time of doing this we were in Lugano, Switzerland, and we had to buy another suitcase to get all of the stuff back!So we thought, maybe we should look at doing this down the road [bringing these items to the U.S.] and we talked about it. After a trip to Europe in 2007 we were still bringing things back, so that’s how it started.

Last year when I got laid off from Tri-North (a Madison construction company) I thought ‘What am I gonna do now?’ So we thought, let’s try this business.

So you were at Tri-North. What were you both doing before that? Any retail?I was a magazine editor for the Better Homes and Gardens newsstand specials in Iowa. So I was the editor of [publications like] Holiday Celebrations, Bed and Bath and Beautiful Interiors. Sue was the art director for Country Gardens magazine. Then we moved here and I was the PR director at Tri-North and Sue is now an art director at Lands’ End full-time.

How many items do you carry on the website and how do you choose what to carry?105 total items. We carry food, confections, accessories, ornaments, and toys and games. We select things that we like—like if we see something in shop or in a studio on one of our trips. We ask, do we think it’ll sell? Do we think our customers will like it? Is it at a price point people are willing to spend? That’s what helps set us apart. The things we look for are objects that have a story behind them or they have unique details. Everything we purchase is handmade or limited production. We work with the craftspeople and the artisans. The items are from Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

We look at it as bringing something that Americans can’t readily find here. Like the bag made out of a recycled Swiss army blanket. You’re not going to find that here. You won’t find our puzzles and domino sets. Some of our things might be more expensive—like a glass ornament from Germany might be more expensive than an ornament from Target but our ornaments are handmade and we know the people that make them.

But I think another thing that sets us apart is that we get to know our vendor/partners and we travel to seek out the best folks to work with. Here’s an example: We were in Brienz, Switzerland in September 2009. Brienz is the center of Swiss woodcarving. We went into a bakery (food is a constant theme on our trips). I asked the women working at the counter about the best woodcarvers in the area. They sent us to the two they thought were the best. And, we now carry items from both. I think it’s that extra something, that experience component, that we offer our customers. They might not ever get to Brienz, Switzerland (or Polinka, Czech Republic, or somewhere else in Europe), but they can have a part of the experience and the heritage.

How often are you getting new product and putting it on the site? Once a month.

What is the price range of the items on the site?We range from a $3 candy bar from Italy to a $225 hand-carved St. Nicholas from Switzerland. Most of our items are generally in the $10–$80 range.

Will you ever open a storefront?We’ll keep it online for now. That’s not to say two years from now we’ll change our mind and open a storefront; I’m not going to rule that out. Right now we’re in the test-and-see-what-things-sell phase.

What are your personal favorite products?Anything chocolate. The chocolate there tastes different than here! $3–$20 (for a bag of individually wrapped chocolate squares with toasted hazelnuts)The Christmas ornaments. $4–$28.Toys and puzzles. $9–$35

Where is your absolute favorite travel destination?A small town in southern Switzerland called Marcote on Lake Lugano. If I could move there I’d be a happy boy! They speak Italian there. It’s this tiny little town on the side of this hill that basically runs down to Lake Lugano. It has two hotels, a post office and a couple of restaurants.

Another place that we loved that surprised us both is Dresden, Germany. We went there this year for the Christmas markets. It’s a beautiful city. It’s the oldest Christmas market in Germany. That’s a whole other deal to see the Christmas market! They sell beer, sausages, toasted walnuts—and it’s the entire length of the city. It’s incredible.

(Photo credit from above: Recycled Swiss post bag purse, $68.)

Europeanmarket.us (Ellibee notes that for Madison-area customers delivery is free or shoppers can arrange to pick it up directly from the business).