The I Love Saipan building in Garapan always draws a crowd every afternoon because of indigenous dancers, a magic show, a man in a Batman costume, and all sorts of other come-ons to entice tourists to look at what they’re selling inside. It even has a Black Friday sale that starts at midnight of Thanksgiving and is always a crowd-drawer. Ten years of that and I Love Saipan has managed to make itself an iconic brand in the CNMI and a must-stop for anyone on the hunt for good deals.
Alex Youn, president and owner of the store, recalls that he and his business partner, Allen Xie, weren’t really thinking of opening a souvenir shop.
“I had this building built in Garapan 10 years ago and there was a tenant that came in and used the entire building. Unfortunately, something happened within their company that they had to give up the business and left with unpaid rent. The economy was so bad during those times due to airlines pulling out of Saipan, including Japan Air… so there we very low number of tourists,” he said.
“Even with that, I decided to run my own business and invited my longtime friend, Allen, as a manufacturing partner who will make and bring in all the products. We started as a fashion store called La Moda Isla and we eventually converted the business into a souvenir store and changed the layout, design, and merchandising,” he added.
The name I Love Saipan was borne out of Youn’s observation that there were not a lot of photo opportunity spots on Saipan 10 years ago.
“I wanted tourists to have a place where, when they take a picture, others will know that they are on Saipan,” he said. “I convinced my partner for us to use that line as a name for our store. So when we put that name on the building, people will stop and take a picture.”
Since opening the store last Aug. 8, 2009, I Love Saipan overcome several challenges, Youn said. “We started at a time when the economy was low—the Japanese market was slowly shrinking [and] there were no Korean and Chinese markets yet. …We went through many kinds of troubles but we are still here.”
That doesn’t even include the challenges from typhoons Soudelor and Yutu and the CW issues.
“I think one of the effective things that we have been doing is the people in the company work together. I really have good managers and team leaders and they really take care of the business even with all the disasters and issues. We now have a total of 120 employees—80 full-time and 40 part-time scattered in all the branches,” he added.
I Love Saipan stores are located in Kensington Hotel in San Roque, Hyatt Regency Saipan, Paseo de Marianas, Beach Road in Garapan, and their outlet store on Middle Road.
Youn describes his main store in Garapan as a small department store because he combines fashion, chocolates, snacks, toys, vitamins, souvenirs, and more as merchandise.
“This way, we capture the local market and the tourists, which I believe is a good mixture,” he said.
The I Love Saipan outlet store on Middle Road caters more to residents because they sell home and lifestyle products at affordable prices like furniture, kitchen wares, interior decor, make-up, and Daiso products.
“Originally, we bought the building to use it as a warehouse, but Typhoon Soudelor came and we brought in relief products like generators, ready-to-eat meals, etc., from the U.S. mainland and South Korea. Allen and I decided to keep the concept and we are happy to keep this store for the local market,” he added.
Construction is currently ongoing in the Middle Road branch as they are adding 90 slots of parking at the back of the store to serve more customers. The new building will also be the new home of the I Love Saipan administration office.
Part of the success of I Love Saipan is that it keeps growing with the times, making products and services better each time. “We don’t stop in trying to update—whether it is the look of the stores and products. We recently changed all the display racks and we are now in the process of putting up photos on the wall that promote the island life. We have improved our local food market and added Myungrang hotdogs from South Korea,” Youn said.
“We also do private labeling with our chocolates from Hawaii and Belgium, mangoes, coconuts, and dried fruits. I think this is very important in promoting Saipan and it also helps us not to be in direct competition with other shops. …Right now, the I Love Saipan brand is becoming popular with locals because of the quality and with visitors because it is a good reminder that they were here,” he added.
There will be an I Love Saipan anniversary sale in Garapan tomorrow, from 6am to noon, and the first 200 customers will get a dollar discount coupon on Myungrang hotdogs.
“This is our way of saying thank you to our customers,” Youn said. “I Love Saipan will always be here for the community and, personally, I love Saipan because this is my home.”