Running with the Big Dogs

Clearly, smaller online retailers that compete against such titans as, Staples, and Lands’ End face daunting challenges. After all, these firms have well-recognized brands and mammoth budgets.

Nonetheless, numerous smaller marketers are thriving online. In fact, “the big boys have helped pave the way by educating people that gifts [and other items] are available online. We view that as an asset,” says Stephen Paul, president/CEO of Bouquet of Fruits, a Fresno, CA-based fruit grower and purveyor of gift baskets.

Of course, just as many small (and not so small) marketers are withering away in the shadow of the online behemoths. Several factors, from search-engine placement to product selection, influence whether your ledger will be written in red ink or black.

Top the list

According to a 1998 survey by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, nearly 85% of online shoppers use search engines and directories, such as Yahoo! and Google, to learn about Websites. So it’s no wonder than many successful smaller marketers have learned how to get their Websites near the top of the lists of search responses in the appropriate categories.

Action Office Supplies, an online marketer that rang up $3.5 million in revenue last year, consistently ranks among the top 10 responses to search-engine queries, says president Sonny Arora. And the vast majority of the 100,000 hits that Lakewood, NJ-based Action receives each month come via search engines. “Search-engine optimization plays a key role in our Internet business,” Arora says.

Action worked with AOS Web-Com, an Internet service provider also based in Lakewood, to boost its search-engine rankings. Many search engines look at a site’s popularity when ranking it, and to determine how popular a site is, they take its links to and from other sites into consideration. So AOS Web-Com president Scott Neuman worked with other sites to establish links to Action, which now links with about 150 other sites.

Neuman also included about 20 relevant keywords within Action’s title metatag. (A metatag is a line of code that search engines read to determine how to index a site.) Including a wealth of keywords in the metatag helped boost Action’s ranking by about 10 positions on some search-engine sites, Neuman says.

Do a credible job

Smaller i.merchants typically lack recognized brand names. So they need to immediately establish credibility with visitors to their site. Otherwise the visitor may worry that the site is nothing more than a front for a scam artist. “Buying a product on the Web is the ultimate in trust,” says Elaine Rubin, chair of, a Washington-based online marketing association. “After all, you have to give personal information and credit-card information.”

Bouquet of Fruits’ site includes a company history telling visitors that the business has been growing and shipping fruits and nuts since 1904; it even offers a half-dozen photos, some of which date back to the company’s earliest days. In addition, the site lists complete contact information, including a phone number and physical and e-mail addresses. Beyond such crucial basics, Bouquet of Fruits provides nutritional facts and historical information on several dozen fruits.

“We want customers to come to the conclusion that we’re a company that knows what’s going on,” says president/CEO Paul. “We want to make them comfortable that they’re in an established place.” Revenue from online orders has grown about 28% annually since the site became commerce enabled in 1998.

Linking with other recognized names can also help establish a firm’s reputation online. Portland, OR-based bookseller, the online arm of the seven-store Powell’s chain, has joined forces with a number of high-profile publications — for instance, writers from Esquire and New Republic provide daily book reviews.

“We wanted people to know that we were not only reputable but esteemed within the book world,” says Dave Weich,’s director of content marketing. During the past three years, sales from the site have grown from 2% of the company’s overall sales to about 25%.’s biweekly e-mail newsletter has amassed 210,000 subscribers since its inception two years ago.

Go deep

Many smaller Websites differentiate themselves from larger competitors by carrying a deep range of merchandise within a particular product category, rather than a broad range across multiple categories.

For instance, offers several hundred sizes and styles of men’s undergarments, says CEO Jeff Johnson, in addition to women’s and children’s underwear. Atlanta-based Underneath’s breadth of products has helped it garner some 35,000 customers since 1997, resulting in sales in the high six figures for last year.

Another online marketer that merchandises deeply within its niche is Christine Columbus. The Lake Oswego, OR-based marketer sells travel accessories for women. The luggage is scaled for women’s generally smaller builds, and security items include slips and bras designed to hold valuables.

Provide superservice

To succeed as a small online marketer, providing good customer service isn’t enough. You need to offer superlative service. For instance, Christine Columbus owner Annette Zientek personally answers e-mail questions from customers. When a woman wrote asking how she could best prepare a teenage boy from outside the U.S. to travel to her home, Zientek replied with detailed tips to help the boy transfer flights and navigate customs — not information that would directly lead to a sale. But about 50% of the site’s customers are repeat or referral buyers — which Zientek credits to her high level of service.

American Wilderness Gear, a Niwot, CO-based marketer of outdoor equipment, offers chat on its Website every weekday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mountain time. Customers can type in a message and receive an instant (or near-instant) response from whichever of the company’s four employees happens to be at his or her desk; as soon as an employee’s screen saver comes on — indicating that he or she no longer is working on the computer — the system stops routing e-mails there.

The online chat software, from, runs about $90 a month, says American Wilderness Gear founder Matt Schaefer, who estimates that his company participates in about 30 online chats a day. About 30% of visitors who use the online chat become customers, Schaefer says, compared with 1% of total visitors to the site.

Stay in touch

Given the huge ad budgets enjoyed by many large marketers, smaller online merchants need to keep their name in front of customers. sends regular e-mail newsletters, while American Wilderness Gear issues e-mail announcements of its sales about six times a year to customers who have opted to receive such notices. The announcements, which cost less than $1,000 to produce, get about a 5% response rate, says Schaefer.

In many ways, the strategies that savvy smaller retailers are using to prosper online are similar to those long used by retailers in the offline world. “A lot of larger companies are not able to give that mom-and-pop feeling, while some smaller merchants can,” says’s Rubin. “That’s is a real big differentiater.”

Karen Kroll is a freelance writer based in Minnetonka, MN.

The Cybercritic Looks at ‘Little Dogs’

As anyone who has ever owned a Jack Russell terrier knows, little dogs can often take on their bigger brethren — and emerge victorious. With that in mind, The Cybercritic visited a number of Websites belonging to smaller marketers to check out their online bark and bite.

A.K.A. Gourmet

A beautiful photo of a bursting-with-goodies wicker basket dominates the home page of this purveyor of gift baskets. Even better, Ghirardelli chocolates are the mainstay of the basket featured — a wise move for two reasons. Number one: Ghirardelli is a renowned upscale brand, so A.K.A. Gourmet can bask in its reflected glory, and assume credibility in the bargain. Number two: Who doesn’t love chocolates? And even those one or two sad souls who don’t favor chocolates are bound to be impressed by the way in which A.K.A. Gourmet sorts its products. Visitors can browse through the merchandise by category, specialty, type of occasion, and price. There’s also a special category for corporate gifts. All in all, an impressive showing of product depth and awareness of the needs of gift-givers.

Clearly AreYouGame takes fun seriously. The site includes employee reviews of products — a great way to let visitors know that the company knows its stuff. If you’re not sure what sort of game would be best for your Bob the Builder-mad three-year-old niece or your next-door neighbors who just had a baby and therefore will be spending plenty of nights in, you’d feel confident asking the folks at AreYouGame, whereas you might not feel that you could get such a personal touch from a toy superstore. And to prevent visitors from browsing on this Website then buying elsewhere, AreYouGame displays a chart comparing prices and availability of selected games at,, and with the prices and availability here. A winning strategy, for sure.


Why should a company buy its packaging supplies from BrassPack as opposed to Staples or Office Depot, to name just two? Well, BrassPack tells you why, right on the home page, in a box titled “Why buy BrassPack?” The company highlights its same-day shipping service and broad selection, among other attributes. Then, on the About Us page, it goes into greater detail: “We offer thousands of products (including more than 400 different box sizes) so you can find exactly what you need. And we only offer items that we have used in our own warehouses…we know these products will perform for you because they have performed for us.” We didn’t know that 400 box sizes even existed — but if our business required packing supplies, we’d want to buy from a vendor that did have such knowledge.


This cataloger of women’s resort attire doesn’t have the deep pockets of, say, Victoria’s Secret, but you wouldn’t know it from the Website. As the home page opens, you’re greeted with a soundtrack of Spanish-influenced music to put you in the mood for buying beachwear. You can also view several video clips of models showing off the apparel, check out fashion news articles culled from wire reports and newspapers, and sign up for the Carabella Club Card, which entitles you to discounts, product alerts, and other benefits — and which surely helps Carabella boost retention rates and repeat business.

The Port Canvas Co.

If you’re looking for a canvas bag, your first thought may be to head to the L.L. Bean Website. But this site gives you reason to buy from the appreciably lesser-known Port Canvas instead. The home page kicks off by explaining how “every Port Canvas bag is handmade to customer specifications — color of canvas, color of trim, and monogram style and color. A single stitcher, always local, works out of his or her own home, right here in Maine. In fact, you’ll find his or her initials right inside the bag.” The copy goes on to detail how the quality and construction of the bags make them superior to virtually all others. In case you’re still not convinced, on the Products page, below each link to a product subcategory, appear glowing customer testimonials. Clearly the customers are as passionate about the bags as the Port Canvas team is — and passion can be a very effective way to differentiate a company from the competition.


Beauty supersites may carry skincare products and cosmetics from most, if not all, of the more than 50 brands that SkinStore offers. But it’s highly unlikely that the supersites provide the wealth of information that SkinStore does. The site’s Education Center, promoted prominently on the home page, offers dozens of articles on skin disorders, cosmetic procedures, sun damage, hair and scalp problems, and so on. SkinStore is a classic example of how a small marketer can stake a claim in the market by digging deep within a narrow niche.


Competing with companies such as PetSmart and Drs. Foster & Smith, pet supplies cataloger Upco clearly faces an uphill battle. But it rises to the challenge. The tagline, “Treating Pets Like Family for 50 Years,” is displayed prominently throughout — as well it should be, since it establishes credibility so succinctly. The home page features Pet Story of the Month, contributed by site visitors, and it organizes the product line in two ways: by type of animal and by type of merchandise (collars, dental care, sweaters, and the like) for effortless searching.

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