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Cecile Corral

Online Membership Retailers a Growing Venue for Home Textiles

One of the “best kept secrets” in the home textiles industry is starting to garner attention as suppliers discover a new retail channel.

Online retail membership clubs – the likes of Gilt, HauteLook, ideeli, One Kings Lane, Rue La La and others – represent a new approach to retailing that gives brand-conscious shoppers the opportunity to buy better and best-tier goods at reduced prices, but within a short window of time that usually lasts only 48 to 72 hours.

Shoppers must first sign up as members on any of these retail websites – and in some cases even wait for final approval that isn't sent until a day later or so via email, such as in the case of Rue La La – to gain access to limited-time sales on an array of goods that include broad variety of soft and hard home products as well as apparel and accessories

While web sites aren't able to offer shoppers the ability to touch textiles before making a purchase, the major players among membership-only online retailers have managed to accomplish a kind of appeal among shoppers: Romance.

Keith Sorgeloos said his company, Atlanta-based Home Source International, only began selling high-end products on several of these sites about nine months ago. But results have been “so strong” that the company is creating new products, brands and lines specifically for the online membership club channel.

“These membership-only sites are one of best kept secrets in the industry,” said Sorgeloos, who is president and ceo of Home Source. “These sites tell a tremendous story, and they know how to show a great value.” He added they “help the customer really understand in text and photography the value, features and benefits that she is getting from our products.”

Alison Gelb Pincus, co-founder and head of marketing of One Kings Lane– the only one among the five major sites that concentrates solely on home furnishings and gifts ¬ said it is more than just romance that gives appeal to her product mix.

With its own editorial staff assigned to describe all of the product and site text, Pincus said a key to selling the merchandise is in “telling the story” and “the explaining” of product attributes and benefits.

“For as much as we are a great discount platform for brands, we are also a very strong marketing channel,” she said. “That theory was only my hunch at first, but it has turned out to be true. We offer our vendors a great place to showcase their brands, and we like established brands but also love emerging brands and emerging designers. What we do isn't about romance but rather telling a story and explaining a product. We are an e-commerce shopping site so we have to make sure we communicate the value proposition properly through pictures and words.”

Other e-commerce membership sites agree that their venues present a viable and valuable stage for showcasing and promoting product in a time when the physical retail landscape continues to consolidate.

Said Tamara Rosenthal, executive director, brand marketing, ideeli: “We're not just clearing inventory, we're building long-term partnerships in part by driving new customers not only to our site for the time of the sale, but also to our vendors' core channels, be it a website or brick and mortar.”

She added that vendors also benefit from exposure to ideeli's more than 2 million customers to date.

“It is about exposure and driving loyal customers to a brand,” Rosenthal explained. “We see ourselves as more than a retailer. We are a brand partner to our vendors.”

According to Janee Ries, vp, home and beauty, ideeli does “very well with duvet sets, comforter sets, sheet sets, and towels as well as decorative throw pillows, cashmere throws and the overall rug category. We have product for the entire home.”

Customers who, Rosenthal added, “discover a brand on our site are the customers who will be more likely later on to pay full price for that brand after experiencing it on ideeli.”

Gilt.com works closely with its home vendors as the upscale website grows its home business, said Stefan Pepe, general manager of home.

“We do all of the photography, the styling. We work with our vendors to make sure we present product in a way that meets with their brand expectations as well as what we are trying to do from Gilt's standpoint,” Pepe explained. “We want to really present a compelling image to customers.”

Additionally, Gilt.com will sometimes hold inventory for specific products, like furniture.

Pepe said that since Gilt.com started selling home products in 2008, the category has grown both in assortment and sales. The website is currently holding 10 home sales per week, which on average last about two days each. But by mid-May, the company up that to 15 sales per week, on par with the rest of Gilt.com's business, which includes designer apparel and accessories.

“Our objective is to enable our shopper to come in and be able to outfit an entire room, all with very beautiful, highly edited and curated products,” Pepe said. “And in the process we help them discover new brands presented in a curated, edited fashion.”

Also growing in home and ramping up its assortment for the category is at HauteLook.com.

“We look high to low for our products. The quality always needs to be great,” said Kecia Hielscher, vp of home. “We do handmade and machine-made rugs, for example, as long as they look fabulous. In bedding, I'll take nothing lower than 200 thread-count. I strive for 600 [thread-count], but what's really important in the end is that it has a nice touch and feel.”

Hielscher said her track record with vendors is a strong one so far.

“Every single brand I've had in home has come back for a second, third and fourth sale,” she said. “I have not had one vendor who hasn't wanted to come back, and I am very proud of that.”

HauteLook offers its vendors a perk – the ability to view the result of their live sales in real time on a Metrix dashboard. “They can see what is happening with their sales as they are taking place,” she explained.

At HauteLook, “another key difference with us is that we help brands build their businesses off our site,” Hielscher noted. She said 755 of the site's members are buying brands “that they've never bought or owned of heard of before, and three-quarters of those relayed a desire to repurchase those same brands.”

HauteLook has hosted more than 2,000 sales events with more than 900 brands across all categories since launching in December 2007. Of those, home accounts for more than 230 sale events that have included more than 160 brands, such as ABC Carpet & Home, Safavieh and others, Hielscher .

Safavieh has participated in many events with some of these sites, including HauteLook.

“It is a different experience but a good one,” said said Arash Yaraghi, vp. “They choose a limited number of skus, from maybe 20 or 30 designs that fall into a specific color and style range for their specific shopper, but they go deep and are able to sell a lot of product in a short period of time.”

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