It`s a truism that you can find anything you want on the web and nowhere is that truer than among specialty non-apparel retailers. Skiing gear, camping equipment, toys, auto parts, baseball memorabilia, personalized pencils and an olio of liquidated merchandise are all part of the Specialty/Non-Apparel retailers in Internet Retailer`s Best of the Web.
Interestingly, one of the standout sites is hardly a retailer at all-Major League Baseball`s MLB.com/Shop. But it illustrates an interesting phenomenon of the web: If you can figure out a way to attract an audience of consumers, you can sell things to them. Consumers who click on the shop section of MLB.com will find all kinds of logo merchandise, from jackets and caps to bobble-head figures of players and coaches. Such an extensive selection of merchandise would not be available to a nationwide audience without the web. "MLB.com/Shop is a great example of what the Internet can do well; in this case aggregating demand that is dispersed," says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president of Retail Forward Inc.
And there are plenty of other sites that do things on the web that they can`t do in stores or catalogs. Auto accessories retailer J.C. Whitney Inc. is a good example. With the web`s ability to aggregate demand and the latitude the web affords in imagery and content, JCWhitney.com has established specialty stores that it could not have in a catalog. On J.C. Whitney`s home page, there are shops for sport compact cars, Jeep CJ and Wrangler, ATV and RV. "These appeal to lifestyles and target consumer segments that don`t get the catalog," says Geoff Robertson, director of technology. "You just can`t craft a catalog on some of those specialty shops." The specialty shops are paying off, he says, by attracting a younger shopper.
Aggregating demand is also a strength of small specialty shops online. Altrec.com and BackcountryStore.com are specialty outdoor sites that thrive as the result of being able to tap into a nationwide-but not that large-market for high-end ski and outdoor equipment. Altrec does it by applying pointed content, superior customer service and a love of its products. BackcountryStore.com does that too, and hires customer service reps who are aficionados of outdoor sports. It also is willing to be a guinea pig retailer for state-of-the-art equipment, attracting hardcore customers who want to have the latest and greatest before anyone else. Sometimes you can find that only on the web.
Surviving with old-fashioned values
If there’s one thing pure-play online retailers have learned since so many crashed two years ago, it’s that success online comes the same way as success offline: Create a value proposition that customers relate to, execute around it, don’t get distracted, build on strengths.
That’s what Kirkland, Wash.-based Altrec.com is doing. Maybe its offline approach came from its advisers: former top level executives of two nationally known, highly respected retail companies: Bill Ferry, former vice chairman of Lands’ End Inc., and Ray Johnson, former co-chairman of Nordstrom Inc. and former interim president of Nordstrom.com.
Johnson says 3-year-old Altrec’s solid approach to management is what attracted him to his role. “I’m impressed that this company has the kind of management style that supports employees rather than dictates,” Johnson says. The result is a workforce that produces excellent customer service, a strategy that complements Altrec’s focus on carrying quality brands, he says.
The products are just part of the value at the site, executives say. Another is the content that resembles an online version of an outdoors enthusiast’s magazine. “It’s a lifestyle site, more than just an e-commerce catalog,” says Shannon Stowell, vice president of business development and co-founder. The articles range from equipment advice to features on mountain backpacking, snowshoeing, canoe trips and other adventures. The site gets 500,000 unique visitors a month.
But Stowell and partners CEO Mike Morford and Creative Director Blane Bonnelson are more than outdoor enthusiasts with a retail web site. They’ve also applied basic business principles to running Altrec, such as focusing on innovative customer service. In 1999, Altrec served as a pilot project for the U.S. Postal Service in developing an easy-to-use product-returns program, which it continues to offer today. “Our primary goal is to be a great example of customer service, which will lead to more growth,” Stowell says.
At the same time, Altrec is extending its presence in the outdoors market while leveraging expertise by offering electronic commerce services to some sites and co-branding with others. For instance, it powers web stores for Backpacker magazine and Outward Bound, which offers adventure travel packages. At OnTheAmericanTrail.com, which offers trips based on American historical themes, Altrec operates a store linked to each travel package.
Overall, Altrec wins high marks for giving shoppers what they want, Johnson says. “They walk the walk and talk the talk of taking care of customers,” he says. And an ex-Nordstrom executive certainly should know the walk and the talk when he sees them.
500,000 - 1 million/mo.
Commission Junction Inc.