Is the online solitary experience solitary? When we buy things through online retail channels, are we bowling alone? Panelists at Consumer Reports's ShopSmart summit on online shopping said that to the contrary, without community there is no basis for growing an online retail brand.
The panel, part of a full-day immersion on the good, bad and ugly of online shopping, included Stephanie Brocoum, VP marketing at RueLaLa.com, a membership Web retailer that follows a boutique model, where brands are on sale for a deal that sells out. The company has 3.2 million members. "But we think of them as a community," she said. Brocoum said the excitement for members comes as part of the time pressure involved. "It's about giving an experience so exciting, they want to talk about it.
"Our members are held to gather by this common thread of style, and many are fairly influential bloggers. We see that because we see referral and membership activity, so this element of personal expression of style is important, [as is] the ability of members to share their influence with other people."
In October, the company launched in Boston, and went to its member council asking what it would want from the Web company on a local basis. "Seventy percent said they want deals at local boutiques," said Brocoum, "so a huge part of our local-market offering will be finding boutiques in local neighborhoods." In addition to Boston, RueLaLa.com is in Philadelphia and Seattle.
Ben Kaufman, founder of Quirky.com, a Web community for crowd sourcing and marketing new inventions under $150, says the Quirky brand is the community. Quirky products, invented by members and produced by the company, are distributed at major home products retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond. Packaging features the photo of the online community member who dreamed up the idea, and the names of all the other people who helped dream up elements of the final product or its name (the company is launching a power strip this week, Pivot Power, dreamed up by a high school kid some years ago that solves the problem of plugs blogging other sockets along the strip.)
Quirky pays the main inventor a hefty fee, and smaller sums to others involved -- the person who came up with Pivot Power gets $6,000, for example. The company's next move is a TV show launching on Sundance this summer that will air every Tuesday night.
"Some people come in with old patents or prototypes. Another guy just said, 'I hate how when I sweep my broom gets dirty.' And that became Broom Groomer, a dustpan that cleans the broom. Every week the community chooses which inventions it likes," he said, adding that Quirky each week picks 2 from 10 finalists at an open Friday meeting that anyone can attend. The company then runs the two finalists through a gauntlet of intellectual property attorneys, engineers and developers and gets the products onto store shelves.
"We want to build the next great American consumer-product brand."