Kitchen Sink Included

Jun 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

RETAILERS OFTEN PUSH PRODUCT the way disc jockeys promote rock and roll — they play the hits. But this hit-focused merchandising tends to underrate the phenomenon of brand loyalty. For many consumers, brand is a decision-making factor more important than price, says Bart Calame, co-owner of C&C Outdoors, an online provider of specialty outdoor goods in San Diego, CA. This is especially true when it comes to outdoor gear.

While C&C’s brand lineup is relatively modest, its per-brand product offering is comprehensive. Virtually every SKU in each line is made available to customers. In business only five years, the company has already attracted a devoted following, driving C&C’s annual sales to more than $2 million.

NO GUTS, NO GLORY C&C’s history is as unique as its merchandising strategy. The store was launched in 1999, when many online retailers were already in the process of crash-landing. Calame and his brother and business partner Russell, both in their twenties at the time, were college-educated and skeptical of the paybacks offered by a lifelong tether to corporate America. They were also fanatical outdoorsmen, and more than ready to risk everything on a venture that combined business with their greatest passion.

“When we got into this, the mortality rate for online companies was alarmingly high,” Calame remembers. “The online approach made sense to us nevertheless. We wanted to be a true niche specialty store offering items mostly unavailable at the brick-and-mortars. The idea was to sell what outdoors enthusiasts wanted but couldn’t get anywhere else. Our work and educational backgrounds were a big help in getting the enterprise off the ground. Mine is in engineering and computers, Russell’s in banking and finance. Both proved an enormous advantage.”

SPECIALIZATION A niche focus and controlled growth were the mantras by which C&C built its business. The company literally grew one brand at a time. In the outdoor products category, the backpack is the center of the universe, ranking right beside the tent in popularity. C&C brought in two of the most popular brands early on — JanSport and CamelBak. It stocked bottomlessly on both brands, so that the manufacturers sometimes directed consumers to the store in their search for the hard-to-find.

C&C’s “stock everything” approach proved equally fruitful on the supply side. For many new retailers, connecting with manufacturers is not easy. But suppliers wanted to do business with C&C because it was willing to promote a whole line — everything, including the kitchen sink. Today C&C carries more than 40 product lines, and has recently augmented the online store with a brick-and-mortar outlet.

ONLINE AND OFF “The decision to go into retail was partially driven by our need to increase warehouse space,” Calame says. “We run the store as an extension of the warehouse, and often do picking right off the retail floor. Our staff is trained to function in both venues, and the WMS does not distinguish between the store and the online operation. Merging the two areas of our business has significantly improved efficiency.”

AUTOMATED OPERATIONS C&C’s WMS does much of the work for the company’s five full-time employees. Inventory and order processing are merged so that shipping labels can be printed automatically. For example, if a customer on the East Coast buys a backpack online, once the system verifies his credit card, it assumes an inventory management role, checking stock from either the warehouse or the retail side or both. Then it prints the packing and FedEx label, and the order is ready for picking the following morning.

“The only thing the system doesn’t do is pick, pack, and ship,” Calame says. “No one has to re-key a single piece of data. All the information is provided by the customer. The system seamlessly ties all the components of the ordering process, and mistakes due to human error are reduced to virtually nil. As soon as an order is received, the system generates an electronic record of the transaction for double-checking. We don’t get many returns or complaints because of employee screw-ups.”

VALUE-ADDED SERVICES Free shipping is unconditional for orders exceeding fifty dollars. This is possible because the company specializes in freight-friendly items rather than canoes and other outdoor gear for which shipping is prohibitive. C&C ships nearly everything via Federal Express regular ground. The company has an exclusive relationship with the shipper. According to Calame, FedEx simply offers the best bang for the buck.

“Customer-friendliness is the concept we were founded on,” he says. “That’s why we stock everything in the lines we carry. We want our customers to come to us for things they can’t get elsewhere, and we make the online purchasing experience as trouble-free as possible. This approach has made us appealing to some fairly unusual customers. Because we stock so deeply we’re a good source for the military, and regularly ship a lot of backpack orders to Iraq. We’ve also sold product to dogsled teams, search and rescue companies, and people into ‘adventure racing,’ a hardcore sport involving a lot of hiking through sometimes unfriendly terrain. We’re a good source for folks of that ilk, and we’ve built a good business satisfying their wants and needs.”

D. Douglas Graham is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO. He can be reached by e-mail at mahakala@charter.net.