Roger Hardy, who in February sold web-only eyewear company Coastal Contacts for $385.7 million, will consolidate OnlineShoes.com and ShoeMe.ca.
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Though Huang insists that “gift-giving goes on all year long,” staying relevant all 12 months may be a stretch. May expects Gift Emporia and other e-retailers of luxury goods will rack up strong holiday sales, but he isn’t sure gift sites have the following beyond that, especially with Internet Goliaths like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the Gap cutting into their share. “Can they be relevant more than two or three times a year?” May asks.
E-commerce consultant Elaine Rubin, chairperson of trade group Shop.org, foresees other problems, wondering whether the Gift Emporia model works better in theory than in practice. “There are a huge number of logistical considerations,” she explains. “How do you control inventory? Customer Service? Fulfillment? It can be hard for the company to find the glitch when it occurs.” She also questions how Gift Emporia can build brand awareness with no online brands. “I’m not sure if the message alone will drive traffic,” she says.
Huange insists these bases are covered. Her staff sets inventory levels in advance with merchants. And some of them overlap in carrying popular items, giving Gift Emporia more than one source. As for fulfillment, Huange says her staff confirms every order with merchants-a task far simpler with 57 merchants than with the 300 she envisions. “We do carry some unique items that are special order,” she adds. “We note this in the product description, so the customer accepts that up front.”
But even gift boutiques are massing on the Internet. “Gift Emporia has a different spin than similar sites, like Send, Ashford or RedEnvelope,” says Rubin, “but it’s still going to take a lot of money and work.”
Send, for instance, spent $20 million on advertising during the holidays last year, twice what it raised in initial funding. “How do you rise above the clutter?” asks Rubin. Still, she gives Gift Emporia credit for finding a way to marry physical stores and the Internet. “This is the trend in e-commerce right now-bricks and clicks.”
Keven Wilder, a retail consultant based in Chicago, agrees Gift Emporia has a shot, but recommends a thorough jazzing up. Though Wilder praises the straight-forward navigation and planning tips for brides-to-be, she found the site lacking in overall allure and customer service touches. A high-end boutique that offers gift-wrapping, for instance, ought to show customers what the paper looks like. The site is designed on a “very basic e-commerce package, which indicates they haven’t spent a lot of money on it,” Wilder adds. “It’s not terribly sophisticated.”
But according to Huang, what Gift Emporia lacks in site design it makes up for in selection, where it rises above a mundane crowd of mass-produced goods. “I want people to experience the stores you would recommend to friends when they come to shop in your town,” she says, “stores that reflect the city they’re in with a unique quality and style not found anywhere else.” •
March 1999 to present: Founder and CEO, GiftEmporia.com
1998: Corporate strategy and development associate, BankAmerica
1996 to 1997: Manager of strategic and financial planning, ESPN
1992 to1994: Personal aide to Former First Lady Barbara Bush
1990 to1992: Staff assistant to President George Bush
- Education 1990: B.S. in business administration, Georgetown University; 1996: M.B.A, Harvard University