Ecommerce retail is a jungle.
Founding a company can really suck. And it sucks even more if you’re an ecommerce retailer. CEO of Bonobos Andy Dunn wrote last year that if you’re competing with Amazon in the low-cost selling of third-party brands, you will lose, and the best thing that will happen to you is an acquisition.
But no entrepreneur worth their salt gives up without a fight.
Dunn urges small ecommerce retailers to stand their ground by offering the depth of experience that big players can’t. The idea of Dunn’s “proprietary strategy” is that carving out your own corner is as much about what you exclude, as what you include.
Here, we illustrate the four pillars of Dunn’s strategy with existing ecommerce retailers at the top of their game.
1. Proprietary pricing – Temporary, exclusive deals give your store traffic and exposure
Proprietary pricing is what created the flash sale industry. Price is a powerful motivator, and temporary price breaks are the single best way to drive conversion online. – Andy Dunn
One King’s Lane – Groupon of throw pillows and footstools
Fab.com – everyday design at great prices
Fab offers an impressive range of discounted items, from home and decor to clothes and accessories.
Threadless – crowdsourced designs, frequent flash sales
Your business model doesn’t have to center on flash sales for you to benefit from them. Threadless thrives on crowdsourcing its tee-shirt designs, and also holds frequent daily deal promotions.
2. Proprietary experience – Repeated delight nurtures loyal customers
A few boxes haven’t delivered anything I really loved, but even then I hardly cared because I still got $10 worth of entertainment opening the box and examining its contents. – Erin Griffith writes about Birchbox, for Pando Daily
Subscription ecommerce has been growing ever since Birchbox pioneered its sample box. And imitation is the sweetest flattery – the fact that so many similar business have sprouted is a mark of its incredible success.
Birchbox – the pioneer of discovery commerce
Griffith describes Birchbox’s strength – “beauty has struggled to bring consumers online since most women want to see, smell and try the products they’re buying. But Birchbox embodies curation, content, marketing, subscription commerce, all in an industry that hasn’t caught up to the Web.”
Followers are so enthusiastic that they photograph and video their “unboxing days”.
Hello Flo – “like Santa for your vagina”
You must have already seen Hello Flo’s viral ads, Camp Gyno and First Moon Party. Not only were they seriously entertaining, they also embody Hello Flo’s focus – equipping parents and their growing daughters with the tools to understand bodily changes.
3. Proprietary selection – Specialized selection for a narrow audience
While the merchandise is not exclusive, it can feel exclusive for three reasons: the depth of the assortment, the difficulty in finding the products elsewhere either online or offline, and the power of their communities. – Andy Dunn
Dolls Kill – single-mindedly edgy
Dolls Kill features a collection of underground brands for a very specific community – probably the goth-punk rebel girl with a resting bitch face. It’s easily the specialist in this selection.
Wild Fang – radicalizing menswear for androgynous women
Wildfang curates clothing for the modern-day tomboy. Because it’s very difficult to find menswear that fits the female body well, the store is popular among women who present androgynously – many of them queer women.
Eloquii – trendy plus-sized fashion
There’re many plus-sized ecommerce stores, but we love Eloquii for its story.
Eloquii was first launched in 2011 as The Limited’s plus-sized line. It got a loyal following, but was shut down because The Limited wanted to focus on its core business. The Eloquii team refused to give up because it saw the potential in bringing trendy clothes to a largely neglected plus-sized market. They relaunched the brand early this year, which is now lovingly referred to as Eloquii 2.0.
4. Proprietary Merchandise – Offer your own product and own your own margin
By offering goods which are not available anywhere else, customers have to buy them directly from the brand. In this way, you own your own margin and you don’t have to compete with other sites selling your brand. At the end of the day, you’re not building an ecommerce company, you’re building a brand that has ecommerce as its core distribution channel. The difference is subtle but momentous. – Andy Dunn
Bonobos – Fun, Fit and Service
Bonobos is best known for its line of chinos. Because it’s proudly obsessed with a good fit, Bonobos offers a complete omnichannel experience – customers can book an appointment at the Guide Shop, in which they’ll get undivided attention from the Bonobos ninjas.
Bevel (Walker & Company) – a shaving system designed for men of color
Founder Tristan Walker comes to an underserved market – people of color – with his own product. Bevel is the first 5-part shaving system clinically tested to reduce razor bumps, which is a problem for 80% of men with coarse or curly hair.
xconfessions – your very own fantasies, re-enacted by Erika Lust
Erika Lust’s xconfessions allows subscribers to submit confessions, and Erika selects the best to bring to the screen. The films are tastefully made (yes, a few are free) and none of them feel PornHub-generic. Plus, watching re-enactments of your deepest fantasies is the closest you’ll get to having your cake and eating it too.
Go forth and conquer.
Despite Amazon’s retail dominance, Dunn is optimistic about the power of small ecommerce entrepreneurs:
With the grizzly bear in the room, what should everyone else do: give up?
Hell no, this is America. We’re capitalists and we’re fighters, and today’s David is tomorrow’s Goliath.