November 21, 2008, 12:00 AM

Specialty/Non-Apparel

(Page 5 of 9)

Even though he sells functional items like faucets and sinks, Auer pays attention to presentation, avoiding the clutter that he calls “the Times Square look.” “If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars,” Auer says, “you’d like to feel you’re in a more upscale store.” Back to top


Being well, doing good
Gaiam Inc. is a socially and environmentally conscious “lifestyle company” devoted to eco-friendly products, Eastern values, wellness, and personal growth. Its e-commerce site, Gaiam.com, offers products that appeal to consumers’ aspirations to improve themselves and the world around them-from yoga and fitness DVDs and accessories to non-toxic cleansers and solar power kits.

“We have a very strong, very loyal, passionate core group of customers,” says Jason Marshall, vice president of direct and Internet business. “They can buy most of these products anywhere but come to us because we think about the entire lifecycle of a product.” He estimates that 95% of the products offered are organic.

Last year Gaiam launched its “Fair Trade” program, partnering with several organizations to purchase crafts from artisans in communities from 10 regions around the world. “Fair trade” merchants commit to paying what they deem to be fair prices to producers in less-developed countries. “The ‘Fair Trade’ tab,” says Mark Lee, principal at consulting firm Mark Lee Group, “takes you to a page where, in addition to links and a video on the subject, you can see Fair Trade products sorted by category, region or the organization that makes them available.”

Customers are willing to spend a little more on a product knowing that they are contributing to the well-being of impoverished communities, Marshall says.

The site itself is easy to navigate and full of appealing images of the products and the people who make them. “My wife, the true web shopper in the family, reviewed the site and found it informative, eye-appealing, intuitive to use,” Lee says, “and it passed her litmus test: shipping and handling charges were easy to find.”

An example of the site’s helpful features is the Q&A; section on product pages. It functions both as forum and a place to get more information. Customers’ questions are reviewed and answered by the staff, while other customers can view the conversations and participate themselves. It allows the company to learn from their customers and use that information to improve the site. Back to top


Neighbor to neighbor
Gardening inspires passion, and Gardeners.com, the web arm of employee-owned Gardener’s Supply Company of Burlington, Vt., inspires its users to share that passion.

“Gardening happens neighbor to neighbor over the fence,” says e-commerce director Max Harris. “We want to facilitate that conversation.”

The site launched a customer review feature in July and amassed more than 15,000 product reviews in no time. The “community” area includes videos and photos of customers’ gardens, and profiles of gardeners who’ve tackled challenges like growing heirloom vegetables or keeping their gardens healthy in dry climates.

A blog, “Gardener’s Journal,” lets the enthusiasts who work for the company communicate with the enthusiasts who buy its products, on such subjects as planting bulbs or finding tree and shrub bargains at the local garden center.

Those local garden centers, plus big-box stores like Home Depot, are the company’s main competition, and Harris says it can’t compete with the impulse purchase opportunities they offer, or their low prices. So Gardeners.com thrives on offering its own products for particular needs: composting, or container gardening, or tools and gadgets for the aging gardener.

It also competes with above-and-beyond customer service: staffers read each product review as it comes in, and make personal contact with anyone unhappy about a product or the company. And its “Learning” section includes more than 400 how-to articles for all levels of gardener from beginner to master, plus an “ask the expert” feature.

Gardeners.com hired a search-engine optimization specialist in 2007-one of its smartest hires, Harris says-and will sharpen up its use of site analytics in 2009 to make e-mail and site offers more targeted.

Appropriately enough, Gardeners.com nurtures a “green” image, giving 8% of its pretax profit to charities that support sustainable agriculture. “Gardeners.com does a great job of being a responsible corporate citizen with its environmental efforts,” says Keven Wilder, a Chicago-based retail consultant. She points to the company’s “Garden Crusader” awards, which spotlight gardeners whose activities, like feeding the hungry or renewing urban neighborhoods, have made an impact beyond their flower and vegetable beds. Back to top


Knitting a community
For a 130-year-old retailer, Lion Brand Yarn Co. has a decidedly 21st-century e-commerce site, complete with podcasts, blogs and an online forum. The site, which carries more than 600 yarn colors as well as kits, accessories and related knitting, crocheting and free craft items, aims to be all things knitting.

“We’re a company that’s been involved in hand knitting for many years,” says Ilana Rabinowitz, vice president of marketing. “But once we set up the web site, we learned more and more.”

In addition to being a shopping site, LionBrand.com offers education and information. “We knew that we had a responsibility to teach people to do crafts, so we have a lot of teaching explanations,” Rabinowitz says. The site also offers a locator for charity-related knitting clubs, a gallery for customers to display their projects and a weekly e-mail newsletter. LionBrand.com typically receives 12,000 e-mails or more a month. “We have a whole system whereby about eight people-one of whom is full-time-actually are able to answer all those e-mails within 24 to 48 hours,” she says.

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