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Local Caribbean Market Uses Internet to Reach 1 Million Customers

Owner and CEO, Andrew Morris, stands at the register at Sam’s Caribbean Market in West Hempstead, New York.

by Christina Thorne, Jamaican Beat Reporter —

Andrew Morris takes the name of his business very seriously – over the past 18 years his ethnic market has become much more than just a place to buy groceries.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace in West Hempstead, NY is a meeting place. It is a community destination where bumping into an old familiar face from back home in the Caribbean becomes inevitable. It closes the 1500-mile gap between its Caribbean American regulars to their families in the West Indies. It is a marketplace, in the literal sense.

“I know that [Sam’s] could be the community for people who are native to the Caribbean and have just arrived in the United States,” said customer Kiarra Lynn Smith, 23.

From the outside, Sam’s modest size makes the store look like a local operation – especially compared to New York City’s largest grocery chains. But some of Sam’s customers might tell you differently. Especially the man that lives in Poland or the woman that lives in Japan. According to Morris, Sam’s 1 million customers live in nearly 60 different countries around the world and in almost all 50 states.

“Even though I am far away, I still feel a sense of amity towards Sam’s,” said Smith, who is loyal to the store despite living all the way in St. Louis, Mo.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace is clearly not a mom and pop anymore, even though it started that way.

Morris, owner and CEO of Sam’s, moved to Long Island, NY from Jamaica when he was 18 years old to attend college, and later graduate school. He decided to open the market in 1994 to cater to the Caribbean-American population in his community after witnessing the success of a local Jamaican-Chinese restaurant called Nakisaki.

Morris obtained his start-up capital primarily through a susu fund, an old Jamaican tradition that works somewhat like an interest free loan. A group of 20 tight-knit friends and family (read: trusted; the susu agreement holds no legal bindings) agree to contribute a weekly “hand” – meaning they throw in a sum of roughly $100 every week for an indefinite amount of time. Each person in the group has a turn to take all of the money in the pot. Many Caribbean immigrants use the susu fund to finance homes, cars and education. Morris used his turn to help build Sam’s nearly 20 years ago.

Inside Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace there are rows and rows of Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas. The exotic produce is probably unrecognizable to most, including ackee, yams and plantains. On an aisle endcap sit an assortment of Dutch pots and coal stoves, making up the housewares section.

The aisles of Sam’s Caribbean Market are filled with Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas.

Basically, “if Sam’s doesn’t have it – you don’t need it,” one customer famously said.

Playing on the radio in the store is Ska music, a marriage of Caribbean Calypso and American Jazz that originated in Jamaica during the 1960s.

“We stream it live from a radio station in Kingston,” said Morris. “We’ve been streaming it since back in the day – before most people even knew what the Internet was and you had to dial up and wait for the connection.”

Because most of Sam’s customers weren’t always “plugged in,” they used to meet at the store years ago to listen to the music and dance. Morris said that people would also gather at Sam’s to tune in to the not-so-local five-o-clock news, which was broadcasted live from Jamaica’s capital city.

Streaming music and news from the Caribbean all the way to his store in Long Island was one early initiative that led Morris to recognize the potential and power of the Internet. He started to think about how else he could leverage the digital space to grow his business.

“We try to look at the technology that’s out there – even things we’ve never seen in a Caribbean store,” he said. “Any way we can use technology to help us.”

In 2003, Morris took advantage of that untapped technology after realizing that a large number of his customers were gradually moving away.

“Every week someone would come in and say that they were moving. I was thinking that pretty soon we would have no customers,” he said.

And so Morris took on the most difficult business expansion he had ever attempted, the development of the website Sams247.com, an e-commerce extension of Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace. Although Morris was armed with an M.B.A. from Columbia University, he worried that he wasn’t tech-savvy enough to start his own website.

“I spent countless, sleepless nights thinking about it. How do I even get a picture up? And once it’s up, how do I get it to stay in the same place?” Morris chuckled.

The website, now seven years old, is not just a promotional brand site; it allows customers to actually purchase Sam’s products from hundreds of miles away. The site allows shoppers to live-chat with a store representative and even has live weather updates for Caribbean travellers. Although it was originally developed to reach the customers that were moving across the United States, it has since proven to be much more and has hugely impacted Morris’s business.

“[The website] was down for a while a few weeks ago,” he said. “We definitely felt it. It now contributes to about one third of our profits.”

The site also sets Sam’s apart from its competitors, few of which have any digital presence at all. In fact, of the nine Caribbean or West Indian markets that turned up in a local New York City business search, not a single one had a branded company website.

Vincent Huggins, the president of the Caribbean American Business Association, sees the opposite among members of the organization.

“Most of the businesses we work with do use the internet as a tool,” said Huggins. “But they’re not all small businesses.”

Huggins admitted that he primarily only sees larger “national” companies utilizing online marketing techniques and that there are not any local Caribbean grocers affiliated with the Caribbean American Business Association at this time.

About three years after the website launched, Morris began developing Sam’s social media presence, at the suggestion of an employee. Sam’s now has digital bragging rights, with over seven thousand Facebook fans and a blog. You can even tweet Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace to ask questions or check to see if products are in stock. Morris uses these outlets to drive interaction with his cross-country, and cross-continental for that matter, customers by using contests, sharing coupons and pushing out valuable content like recipes and music.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace moved to a much larger space in a new town this past February. The move to West Hempstead was due largely in part to the success and increased revenue from the website.

Stephanie Moise, 31, says that her go-to grub from Sam’s is the coconut bread. Moise has been a devoted customer for ten years.

“Since they moved I have to drive further but I don’t care,” she said. “I do it anyways because it’s worth it!”

The community of West Hempstead welcomed the arrival of Sam’s with open arms. Manny Martinez is a Sam’s regular, making weekly visits to the store to pick up his favorite beef patties. He is also a member of the West Hempstead Chamber of Commerce. The organization recognizes the importance of local businesses like Sam’s to the people in the city and supports these businesses through education, networking events and community outreach.

“When we heard that Sam’s Caribbean was going to open up we held a ribbon cutting ceremony,” said Martinez. “The idea is to create a buzz about the new business. We bring in local politicians and invite the community to check out the business.”

The new location at 225 Hempstead Turnpike includes new features like a quick-service restaurant, a café and an ice cream stand. Additional services to connect local shoppers with their far away friends and family include an international money wire service, international calling cards and cell phone minutes and a “Pack & Ship” station that allows customers to pick out products and merchandise from the shelves and have them shipped anywhere in the world, right there in the store. No need to drive over to FedEx.

Morris prides himself on always looking for new and innovative ways to expand his business. He is planning to roll out new services from Sam’s in as little as two months. One of Morris’s short-term goals is to launch a local delivery service, using a platform comparable to pizza delivery companies. Customers will be able to place orders both online and over the phone.

“If you’re in your office and you need something, we’ll bring it to you,” Morris said. “If you’re having a party and you need something, we’ll bring it to you.”

And the long term?

“I always said that when we get to be 20-years-old, we’ll look at franchising the store,” said Morris.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace will celebrate its 19th birthday this December.

 

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