The Storenvy Online Market place is a virtual mall brimming with funky fashions and jewelry, nifty gizmos, artisan soaps and other eclectic merchandise from some 52,000 independent retailers. And now this San Francisco-based dot-com which enables shoppers to fine-tune the stuff they see by “envying” the products in the manner of a Facebook “like” – is bringing its user-driven model to the brick and-mortar world. Storenvy’s 1,700-square-foot store opened at the beginning of the year in downtown San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria. Initially, the idea was for a popup shop on a 30-day trial run, bur shoppers at the boutique-focused mall responded so enthusiastically that the plans were quickly changed, says founder and CEO Jon Crawford. “Crocker Galleria came to us and said, ‘Hey, we love you guys and want you to stay,'” he said.
All the merchants in the physical store are popular sellers at Storenvy.com, which launched in 2009 and now has upwards of one million registered shoppers. These plugged-in users create detailed profiles and curate the products they peruse by envying their favorite items and merchants and following other shoppers whose tastes jibe with their own. These users spend some $2.5 million in total with Storenvy sellers in a given month, according to Crawford. At the Crocker Galleria store, meanwhile, Storenvy strives to maintain a similarly engaging mix by frequently varying the offering. “Every 30 clays we roll in a new batch of five or six of our online merchants into the space,” Crawford said. The company, named one of Forbes magazine’s 10 Greatest Industry-Disrupting Startups of 2012, has thus far attracted some $6.5 million in venture capital from the likes of First Round Capital, Intel Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Spark Capital. The company is open to launching additional stores, Crawford says.
While Storenvy specializes in what Crawford describes as “unique, original and authentic stores and artists,” a big reason for its success is the way it handles “discovery”: the process whereby users learn about particular merchants and products. Whether browsing online or in the physical world, shoppers face the overwhelming conundrum of figuring out exactly what to buy amid nearly unlimited options. “Discovery is the final frontier of retail shopping,” Crawford said. “If you know where the cool things are, and the right things are put in front of you more often, you’ll actually spend more of your money.” Sites like Amazon.com and Netflix try to tackle this challenge by monitoring the browsing and buying habits of the users and by tailoring the product pitches to match. Storenvy’ model is more like that of the blogging website Tumblr, which makes it easy for people to share their favorite finds with their social-media friends. “We believe that crowd-curating through social [medial] is one of the most scalable forms of discovery,” Crawford said. “It is just a lot more interesting to pair you up with people who have similar styles, tastes and moral views as you do. Whatever they think is cool, you get to see.”
Not all tech startup stay around for the long haul, but Storenvy’s use of a social-media-like model to curate merchandise offerings is intriguing, says Joseph Bona, president of branded environments at CBX, a New York City-based branding and retail-design consulting firm. “Given the homogenization and commoditization in conventional retailing today, many retailers are struggling to give people a reason to walk through the door,” Bona said. “Arguably, staying the same is no longer a viable option in retailing today. A model in which the fast-turning merchandise on the shelf is partly or wholly determined by shoppers’ ‘likes’ – that is different and unusual.” In today’s world of omni-channel retailing, it makes sense for independent retailers to use tools like Storenvy to gain a foothold online, Bona say. Storenvy builds customized, e-commerce- enabled websites for its sellers for free, making money by charging for upgrades and, starting in January, by taking a cut of any sales that occur in Storenvy’s separate online marketplace. “You never know which of these tech tools will explode to become the next big thing,” Bona said. “But when these tools are affordable and showing signs of growth, smaller retailers have every reason to experiment and try to leverage interesting online channels, in addition to the brick-and-mortar side.”
Just about any seller can join the site, and many of these independent retailers do lease space at shopping centers, Crawford says. He is a web designer and engineer who conceived of Storenvy while building online tares for small businesses. “These were all really passionate people who just wanted to sell their stuff on the Internet and create a branded retail experience online,” he said. “They didn’t want to be on eBay or Amazon, because they did not feel like it fit their brand experience.” Crawford says he grew increasingly annoyed that there was no easy way for these smaller stores to launch attractive, ecommerce- enabled websites without first sorting thorough costly and time-consuming issues- multiple decisions related to such things as web-hosting and publishing, and payment-processing. Even today small businesses pay specialists huge sums to launch a website when there are simpler solutions available, Crawford says. “You don’t have to pay someone to build your online store from scratch,” he said. We see people spending $5,000 or $10,000 to get a website built that they cannot even update themselves. That makes us very sad. These people could be empowered by using a platform like Storenvy.”
The Storenvy online marketplace aims to help smaller retailers solve another problem: attracting the attention of target customers. “People end up making sales through Storenvy.com in addition to the sales that they are driving tl1rough the customized websites that we create for them,” Crawford said.
Storenvy currently employs l8 people and has plans to add 15 or 20 more over the next year or so, Crawford says. “We are in business to help people express their ideas and create amazing online businesses,” he said. “And we’re just warming up. The product that is online right now is just the beginning. We’re learning a lot about physical retail, discovery, storytelling and mobile. We invite people who want to create strong community and tell their stories to be part of what we’re doing.
But we try to stay away from sellers who just want to be on 50 different websites to make money as fast as they can. This is for businesses with soul.”
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