November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM


As the Internet draws out innovation in retailing, providing a business case for serving myriad niches, some of the more interesting and unusual consumer web sites will be found among non-apparel specialty merchants.

Internet Retailer Best of the Web 2007 (PetsUnited)

As the Internet draws out innovation in retailing, providing a business case for serving myriad niches, some of the more interesting and unusual consumer web sites will be found among non-apparel specialty merchants. Take, which made Internet Retailer’s Top 50 Best of the Web list this year for its ability to use the web to serve a consumer need that would be difficult to serve offline.

Looking for a door gasket for your refrigerator or a blower wheel for your electric dryer? Going without such obscure items could mean days of spoiled food and backed-up laundry, yet getting your hands on replacements quickly could be a long shot. But with an extensive parts database served by effective site search and navigation functions, has made finding such things an easy affair.

The Specialty/Non-Apparel section this year also includes seven retail sites in a sports/activities category, three that focus on pets and one that caters to car and truck owners. One thing they all have in common is a knack for providing a shopping experience that engages their customers and keeps them coming back. extends its reach with shoppers by letting them download videos of a personal trainer to an iPod; launched this year “fall-through” search, which automatically sends shoppers to one of Backcountry’s sister sites when a searched-for product is not available at the site the shopper is viewing; and fishing and hunting site shows shoppers how to cook ‘em as well as how to catch ‘em.

Taking the usefulness of web shopping for a long ride, JC Whitney lets shoppers search or navigate by hundreds of brands and types of parts, or dive into a specialty area like classic VWs. lets football fans pull down a menu for men’s, women’s and kids’ products to shop at any NFL team.

The multiple pet sites of PetsUnited, meanwhile, benefit from traffic-generating features like, a discussion site that channels comments from about 15,000 animal lovers every day.

Such entertaining and informative features keep Top 50 e-retailers the top dogs in their fields.
Stocked up

Working behind the counter as an inventory specialist and as a repair technician gave Roman Kagan the know-how to launch, a small e-commerce site that’s making a bigger name for itself in the online hardware and home improvement space.

In the last year the company’s web sales have grown by 50% to $4.9 million while monthly site traffic has doubled to 150,000 unique visitors. is building a bigger web business and a loyal audience of do-it-yourself shoppers because the site helps customers locate hard-to-find parts. “I started this because I wanted my own business and I knew the Internet could help people locate scarce parts faster than driving around town to different parts stores or spending all morning on the phone,” Kagan says. enables customers to find both current and hard-to-find parts for appliances-usually within four clicks. The online retailer stocks parts for about 100 makes and models and maintains an online inventory of more than 1 million parts. “We have parts for appliances that date pretty far back,” Kagan says. “We maintain some inventory for stoves built in the 1950s.”

Kagan, a self-taught e-commerce manager and web developer, built so that customers can search for spare or replacement parts by model number, manufacturer and by type of part. The site’s design is simple and straightforward, but what really sets apart from similar sites is deep content. maintains a digital library of 300,000 schematics for specific appliances. Users can click on a particular part and see a schematic of where the part fits on a washing machine motor or an oven broiler igniter. also offers a live chat tool to help customers navigate the site or find a specific part as they look at images of washer motors, broiler parts and refrigerator pumps. “Buying appliance parts isn’t exactly a fun task, so making a site for appliance parts easy to use is key,” says Shari Altman, president of direct marketing and e-commerce consulting firm Altman Dedicated Direct Inc. “ also does their homework in terms of removing barriers to purchasing.”
The idea men

One has to hand it to the guys at They’re never short on ideas. The group that mastered the niche strategy-they began setting up microsites for various subsets of outdoor enthusiasts in 2004-are continuing to innovate.

Earlier this year the outdoor gear specialist introduced so-called fall-through search at its site. The feature, built by WebSideStory at the company’s request, delivers searchers to other Backcountry sites when they’ve searched for an item doesn’t carry but its other niche sites do.

Backcountry doesn’t cross-market across its sites because “we think there’s a lot of power in having separate brands,” says John Bresee, president. “On the other hand, when a customer is looking for something and we know that we have it, to not offer it to them is not good customer service.”

Fall-through search preserves the separate identities of the specialized niche sites while directing the customer to the site carrying the product. “It’s been a powerful revenue driver across all sites,” Bresee says.

Fall-through search “is a great idea, but it needs some work,” contends Maris Daugherty, senior consultant at J.C. Williams Group. She notes that it may confuse some customers because while they’re told they’re being forwarded to a different site, they still appear to be on

Backcountry in August also introduced the “Bottomless SaC” at its site, where bargain hunters can get deeply discounted prices on “killer gear.” Originally, Backcountry posted one deal at midnight each day, “but the site was getting so much traffic that we were selling out at 1 a.m.,” Bresee says. “We had 23 hours of dead air some days.”

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