Millions of Americans spent the summer hunkering down at home in an effort to avoid catching the COVID-19 virus.
Chris and Sue Ellibee were not among them. They moved from Atlanta to Chattanooga in June, bringing along their Labrador, Greta, and EuropeanMarket, their online (europeanmarket.us) business specializing in sales of European-made home goods.
Despite the relocation and multiple pandemic-related challenges, EuropeanMarket's business is up compared to last year.
"Our numbers are up because people are home," Chris Ellibee says. "We've had folks tell us they had to cancel trips to Europe that they'd planned for years, so we've done some marketing along that line – if you had to stay home this summer, we've got some things that might remind you of better times and help you look forward to another trip."
The Ellibees say that since they launched the business 11 years ago, they've typically traveled twice yearly to Europe, attending shows and establishing vendor relationships. They say their last trip was in February, but they have written off the prospect of getting back before 2021.
"Maybe February," Chris Ellibee says. "We'd heard about the pandemic when we went to Madrid earlier this year, but we didn't think too much of it – it hadn't gone worldwide yet.
"Then, when we were flying out of Madrid to come home, they were taking aside people with Chinese passports to have their temperatures taken at the gates," he says. "We thought, 'That's interesting.'"
The Ellibees were working for an Iowa-based magazine publisher in 1999 when Sue was tapped to go to Germany, Belgium and France on assignment. Chris accompanied her, and they took a few days after the assignment to travel and buy gifts – mostly chocolate and Christmas ornaments – for family and friends back home.
The gifts were a hit, Sue Ellibee says, and that got them thinking.
"Chris is a writer and editor, and I do things like photography, graphic and website design," she says. "We love to travel, and we'd always talked about finding something we loved to do that made use of our talents.
"We did it," she says with a laugh, "and it only took us 10 years."
The Ellibees say they "started small," and in late 2009, with the nation's economy still reeling from the prior year's Great Recession.
"We were begging family to buy from us," Chris recalls.
But their modest beginning worked out well, they say.
"That was actually a good thing for us," Sue Ellibee says. "It gave us a chance to kind of feel our way into the business. We didn't feel a lot of pressure to jet from zero to 100."
Destinations of choice
In the course of running EuropeanMarket, Chris and Sue Ellibee have traveled to Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. So which are their favorite destinations?
Sue: “I love Paris. You hear that the people there are mean, and it’s too crowded, but I’ve found the people to be very friendly. I don’t speak much French, but they appreciate it if you try. So much history and, of course, the food is fabulous.”
Chris: “I have two – Morcote and Ticino, both in Switzerland. Ticino, particularly, is just a beautiful spot. The topography is a little like Chattanooga’s, in that you’ve got hills coming down to lakes. I also love Germany, because my entire family is from there.”
When it comes to picking European vendors, the Ellibees say they do reconnaissance before a trip and make it a point to attend trade shows, but still drop in random stores, as well. Sue Ellibee says she and her husband are pretty specific when it comes to what they look for in potential vendors.
"We lean toward smaller manufacturers," she says. "We don't like to work with vendors who are really big, whose stuff is in every big home store.
"And of course," she says, "the number one criterion is that everything we sell has to have been made in Europe."
Today, EuropeanMarket has customers not only in the U.S., but also in Canada, Hong Kong, Australia and Malaysia – and even in Europe. They sell to those customers from Chattanooga, which they say they chose quite intentionally.
"We moved to Atlanta five years ago, when Sue took a job there," Chris Ellibee says. "We knew we wouldn't be there long-term, so we started looking at places like Greenville, South Carolina, and Bentonville, Arkansas.
"Then we got some information about Chattanooga. We visited and liked it a lot – its size, lots of entertainment and dining options," he says.
Sue Ellibee calls Chattanooga "vibrant," adding that the city's livability is a plus.
"You can be anywhere in 20 minutes," she says. "This has the potential to be a great place for us to live."