Lens Direct is projecting year-over-year sales growth of more than 40% this year.
Details, details. Nancy Huang was swimming in them while planning her wedding, and she needed hassles like she needed the caterer canceling at the last minute. Yet as Huang browsed department stores for her bridal registry, her frustration grew. She didn’t want-or need-sheets or towels or a five-speed blender. “I was looking for unique gifts,” Huang says. But making matters simple for her guests meant choosing chains with stores nationwide. Trouble is, none offered much that wasn’t mass-produced.
Later, as Huang talked to other brides, she discovered she wasn’t alone. In a classic case of necessity mothering invention, Huang’s dilemma led her to draft the business plan for GiftEmporia.com, a collection of one-of-a-kind gifts from fine boutiques and specialty shops. She imagined a store giving brides-to-be and treasure hunters a wide selection of unusual merchandise without sending them scouring specialty shops-a business that seemed tailor-made for the Web. The business got off the ground last March and officially opened on Thanksgiving Day.
Though Gift Emporia is Huang’s first foray into running her own business, she grew up watching her father start businesses from scratch. She and her family immigrated from Taiwan to Houston when she was just a year old. Once settled, her entrepreneur father opened three restaurants, where Huang and her sisters helped out after school. To Huang, her father embodies the American Dream. “He is my role model,” she says. “I was always amazed at how he could do anything-things he’d never done before. He just figured things out as he went along.”
Four years with the Bushes
Huang sees her own career in much the same way. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1990, she headed across town to work as an administrative aide at the White House. She spent two years as a staffer for former President George Bush, then followed the Bushes home to Houston as an aide to Barbara Bush. She credits the experience for giving her the drive to excel. “It was about delivering quality and following through,” she says of her stints in Washington and Houston. “You didn’t tell the President and Mrs. Bush no.”
After four years with the Bushes, Huang went back east to business school at Harvard. She first joined ESPN as a manager of strategic and financial planning, then left for a corporate strategy post at BankAmerica. Even in her spare time, she found herself planning business models. “It was a hobby,” she says, “to stand outside a store and figure how they choose their products and who they were targeting.”
Another wedding, this time for a sister, cemented her determination to start GiftEmporia.com. Six guests showed up at the shower with the same gift. “I felt so embarrassed for them,” says Huang. “It seems we all resort to shopping at the same stores. Everyone registers for the same things, when what we really want is uniqueness and diversity.”
After a summer spent recruiting merchants and tracking down funding, Gift Emporia opened with a soft launch last Thanksgiving Day. “We started slowly,” Huang says. “We didn’t want to over-push our merchants.”
Yet the horror stories Huang heard about Web entrepreneurs seeking capital led her to expect plenty of pushing from potential investors. To her surprise, Huang lined up $2.6 million in startup financing with few hitches. Her initial funders include Peninsula Capital, former Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer and even the Bushes. “They are great supporters,” says Huang, who’s preparing for a second round of venture capital.
Still, lining up merchants involves less courtship. Most of the boutiques Huang admired were not online, though they had loyal followings of local shoppers.
Her site brings them together under one cyber galleria, allowing them to break out of geographic barriers. Her 57 retail partners come from all over the U.S. and Canada. They range from hand-painted linens from Affairs for the Home in Atlanta to fine jewelry from Baltimore’s Dahne & Weinsteins to custom-made boots from Rocky Carroll in Houston to luxury pet products created by a Los Angeles store rumored to be favored by Elizabeth Taylor. Huang estimates that 90% are owner-operated.
In choosing merchants, Huang and her staff move from market to market, eyeing the best non-chain gift stores. Her sales staff includes veterans from luxury gift retailing, though her initial database drew on far more humble connections-it came from e-mail suggestions sent by friends. Huang is unapologetic. “We rely a lot on referrals,” she says, “because we only want the best-stores you would tell your friends about.”
With the category-killer landscape crowded with rivals, niche-in-niche categories are one of the few ways left for e-retailers to make a name for themselves, says Michael May, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, New York. While category sites go deep into a niche like pets or health and beauty, Gift Emporia aims wide, giving shoppers a range of gift ideas. “Instead of being very relevant to a few people, these sites can be a little relevant to many people,” May says. One advantage is that specialty shops encourage impulse buying, because consumers don’t have the opportunity to comparison shop. “Shoppers at these sites tend to make purchases immediately,” he says. “While if you’re going to buy something at Amazon, you can check the prices at other stores.”
Although the site is geared for bridal registry, Huang hopes consumers will turn to her for all kinds of special gift needs. She hopes the site will have 300 stores by the end of the year. Considering the lack of Internet familiarity most of the stores had when she approached them, Huang says store owners embraced the technology surprisingly fast. “Our retailers want customers to know they’re online. They want to help create a neigh-borhood presence on the Net.”