To compete with the marketing budgets of traditional retailers’ ecommerce startups have found a way to cheaply acquire customers: provide interesting content on their website. Those who enjoy the blog are most likely their target demographic, and once on their website it will be easy to convert these readers into paying customers. However, these visitors are first and foremost consumers not customers, and the conversion from consumer to customer may be more complicated than imagined. Content driven commerce is an age-old concept; advertisements are paired with relevant media content in magazines, in newspapers, on television and alongside search results. Yet, for ecommerce businesses this new model challenges them to simultaneously create interesting content and a viable business. One company in particular, Huckberry, has been extremely successful in meeting this challenge.

Huckberry is a startup ecommerce site designed for the urban male professional who spends his weekend’s outdoors. Co-founders and college friends, Andy Forsch and Richard Greiner lived this life during their investment banking days and thus know their consumer well. Huckberry is equally a blog and a shop, you can seamlessly toggle between the sections via tabs at the top of the page. Counterintuitive to traditional merchandising, Huckberry intentionally drives traffic from the shop to the blog; products are featured next to blog posts, and blog teasers are placed in the shop. Last month I sat down with founder Andy Forsch and learned their blog strategy is as crucial as their merchandising strategy; they are constantly aiming to improve the customer’s experience by not only providing more interesting products, but also more relevant content. With email communication, their rule is three content pings for every commerce pin, and to date the strategy has worked as they have incredibly high open rates on their emails.

Huckberry’s consistent aesthetic and voice results in seamless integration between their blog and shop, they maintain this consistency by keeping all of their writing and photography in house. Even their product descriptions read like a story, In 2008, Swedes Alexander Palmgren and Henrik Lindahl found themselves in an American hotel room with lost luggage and— even more upsetting— no clean underwear. No, this isn’t The Hangover 3. But it was the beginning of an idea: Bread &Boxers.” Not quite the typical product description for undershirts and boxers, but each of these descriptions builds and maintains their brand.

The question remains, how will they convert these content driven sign-ups into paying customers? Further, does Huckberry need to turn every one of their consumers into a customer? To date their sales have supported the bootstrapped company (they have taken no venture fudning) and everything from article writing to order fulfillment is done in their SOMA garage style office. Without the pressure of growth targets they are waiting for the right opportunities to scale their business or pivot their model.

With a blog as valuable as Huckberry’s I wonder where their future lies. Are they going to continue to sell a curated collection of luxury plaid shirts and masculine candles? Are they going to fundamentally change media content’s monetization and distribution? Their articles are as interesting as GQs, but their turnaround time is seven days, not seven months, so it is no wonder why traditional media outlets, such as Outsiders magazine, have begun to seek partnerships with them. Huckberry delivers timely and interesting articles to their consumers’ inboxes with interesting products for sale folded into the mix. As a consumer and a customer that sounds better than getting an email from Details filled with display ads and veiled behind a subscription fee.

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U.S. online retail spending is growing at double-digit rates.  In 2011, U.S. online retail spending was a $162 billion industry while the global value is pushing $1 trillion.  During the past decade, the Internet has become the one-stop shop for hard to find items.  The largest online retailer, strives to offer the “Earth’s Biggest Selection” after diversifying from an online bookstore to a veritable bazaar offering countless items of apparel, electronics, food, toys and jewelry.  But are we as consumers starting to be overwhelmed by selection?  A search of ‘pink sweater’ in will result in a whopping 36,512 results!  This may help explain why the latest trend in online retailing is offering curated items and a more visual online shopping experience.

Curated online shopping

Curated online shopping is a huge trend and more and more online curated retailers are popping up everyday.  Popular sites such as Warby Parker (which offers boutique-quality, classically crafted eyewear at an attractive price point) and Trunk Club (where a personal stylist handpicks a trunk of high-end men’s clothes and a customer is charged only for the trunk items kept while the other items are returned) are changing the way people shop on the Web.  Apparel and clothing items are not the only category of curated online retail offerings, but many websites offer fun and creative gift ideas and pieces for the home.  Online retailer Taigan prides itself on providing out of the ordinary products such as customized ice cream sandwiches and $34,000 ancient jaguar bracelets.  Other websites such as AHAlife have its products selected by tastemakers in their field such as Daniel Boulud (chef and restaurant owner) and Donna Karen (fashion designer).

Curated collections are also showing up on popular websites such as Pinterest, a pinboard-style social photo sharing website that allows users to browse other pinboards for inspiration, like photos and ‘re-pin’ photos to add an image to a user’s own collection.  Users can browse through the curated image collections, and by simply clicking on a photo users are often redirected to the retail website where the product is available for purchase.  Pinterest is particularly good at driving traffic to retailer websites as shown by its ability to drive more traffic to online retailers than Facebook.

Visual online shopping

So, as a consumer, do you prefer a more visual form of shopping?  Let’s revisit our ‘pink sweater’ example.  Searching on you have your 36,512 results to sort through (and at 16 results per page, I foresee a lot of clicks in your future).  Not to mention, the product pictures are quite small and the product wording description represents the majority of the page.  By contrast, consider a site like Polyvore which is more user friendly for visual shopping.  On Polyvore, you can “follow” someone and view their collection of pictures and items, or you can shop by searching a keyword.  In our ‘pink sweater’ example you once again get many results, but three key features make this search experience different than the Amazon example:  1) All of the search results are on one page allowing for easy viewing; 2) Product pictures are emphasized while product description wording and price are much smaller to make it easier to visually compare products; and 3) By hovering your cursor over a product picture, an information box pops up which gives you more product details (and gives your finger a rest from clicking the ‘back’ button numerous times).  These are some of the many benefits provided by more visually oriented online shopping sites.

Curation and better visual design comprise a huge trend in online retail shopping now in the Internet’s seemingly unending task to improve the consumer’s online shopping experience.  Without a doubt, however, there will always be a place for multi-category retail sites like Amazon where the desperate needs of unique customers can be met whether it be 1,500 live ladybugs or a UFO detector.  And in case you are wondering, the most recent pricing for 1,500 live ladybugs is a steal at $7.25, whereas the UFO detector will set you back $149.95.

Some worthwhile sites to visit to check out the latest trends in curation and visual design:

AHAlife:  online retailer of unique gifts and products from around globe curated by influential tastemakers

OpenSky:  online retailer of products that are curated and endorsed by celebrities and experts

Polyvore:  fashion social-commerce website that allows users to assemble sets of clothes

Taigan:  online retailer of unique products curated from boutiques and designer brands around the world

TheFancy:  social photo sharing website that is part store and part photo collection

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