Business Owner Profiles

The Last Grocery Frontier: Richard Wilkin’s Interior Alaska Shopping Serves Customers by Land and Air

4 Mins read

The Alaska North Slope is known for the rugged, unforgiving terrain that juts out from the state’s Brooks Range and encompasses the coasts aside the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean and the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This is wild country. 

Inhabitants of the land are survivors, hard workers. They’re courageous. And though they are famous for their self sufficiency, the people who live here also need groceries once in a while. 

Sending groceries to the Alaskan North Slope means BIG orders!

Enter Richard Wilkin. Richard was making a living as a personal shopper in Fairbanks, the state’s second-largest metropolis. He had started his Dumpling-powered business, Interior Alaska Shopping, in May 2020, and it was chugging along nicely. Then he started getting some novel order types.

“Last July someone in one of the villages on the North Slope got in touch with me,” Richard said. “They have a barge that goes in once a year. But everything else has to be freighted by air.”

Ever the entrepreneur, Richard knew that this could serve as a new business opportunity for him, while also helping people who really need supplies shipped out in a convenient way. So he started making some new friends.

“I made it a point to become on a first name basis with everyone at the airlines,” he said. “We have planes that fly out to remote villages and places up north that are off the road system. So I started taking a few bulk orders a week to ship out to the North Slope and to villages on the Arctic Ocean or Bering Sea.” 

Richard told us that the business he created with Dumpling was received with open arms by these customers. Many had poor experiences with other shopping and shipping platforms. Richard relayed stories of lost packages and orders that were never correct because there was no way to communicate directly with a shopper on, say, Instacart’s platform.

“After the first few orders, I thought, ‘Wow. This is something I really know how to do because I’ve lived off the road system,’” Richard said. “And it really took off. People loved the fact that they could just text me and make sure that their shipment was sent and contained the right items.”

Wherever You Are, Richard is Here to Serve

Richard told us the majority of his orders go out to rural areas far outside of cities or towns and are off of the road system. And he’s got the process down to a science. 

Because of Richard’s relationships with employees at the airlines and his general knowledge of how shipments to rural areas work, he is able to help his customers seamlessly navigate the ordering, shopping, and shipping process. 

A few pallets of Richard’s orders waiting to be loaded into planes.

This really helps Richard with customer retention. Rural clients understand that coordinating air freight orders can sometimes be tricky. And since many of these customers rely on expensive satellite phones, having Richard organize shipping cuts down the costs associated with calling freight companies. 

“It’s just so convenient for them,” Richard said. “And because the freight’s already been paid by me, the order is queued up faster. Sometimes this means orders arrive a day earlier than expected. When you’re off the road system, that can really mean a lot to a person.”

But it’s not just rural customers who benefit from Richard’s services. He also shops for clients local to Fairbanks. And there is no shortage of potential customers in the local market.   

Tailoring Orders According to Customer Preference and Expectations

There is a lot for customers to appreciate with Richard’s attention to detail, dedication to customer service, and easy-going nature. He makes the shopping experience simple for clients. And, because of his background, he’s able to really understand the disparate needs of his customer base. 

As a vegetarian for a number of years, Richard has a knack for picking out the best produce. He regularly visits local co-ops and farmers markets to get the freshest products.

“It’s nice to support local businesses,” Richard said. “Right now, I’m trying to partner up with a local co-op. So, for example, if I get an order for strawberries, that’s going to go to the co-op because they’re so high quality.” 

Richard also knows his meats and now seeks to get his annual share of Alaska’s plentiful wild game.

“I was raised a vegetarian, but that all changed when I went on a Keto diet,” Richard laughed. “Have you ever tried a Keto diet as a vegetarian? Impossible. We get a yearly allotment of salmon, so I’m going fishing to meet that this year. And if you can get a moose, that’s enough meat for your family for the year.” 

It’s this intimate knowledge of Alaskan traditions that help Richard keep a close rapport with his customers. He understands the state’s seasons. He knows what his clients will be looking for during various times of the year. And he is willing to visit any number of retailers for his clients, whether it’s Costco or Walmart or a specialty co-op or farmers market.

Best Practices Work for Customers in the City or Backcountry

Interior Alaska Shopping’s success is no accident. Richard’s business is thriving because of hard work, ingenuity, and networking. And he says one of the top things a personal shopper can do to achieve his or her goals is to really focus on communication.

“We’ve all had bad experiences with personal shoppers,” Richard said. “Back in Virginia, my mom broke her arm. We were trying to organize a grocery delivery for her, and the driver just kind of disappeared mid-order. Just stopped texting. Nobody wants that.”

Richard told us he makes it a point to maintain open lines of communication with his customers. He wants to ensure they remember him for his stellar service and return as happy clients. 

This is sometimes complicated when shopping for orders for rural customers. It’s not always possible to have a back and forth since telephone reception may be limited or nonexistent. That’s why Richard really tries to get to know his customers and what their expectations are. 

“Sometimes I’m shopping blind without the ability to communicate,” he said. “So it’s really important to know if someone is allergic to peanuts, for example. I want to be able to shop with confidence and get what my customers need, and knowing what those needs are really helps.”

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