And the Winner Is…

The awards season has begun. I figure let’s get a jump on all this, save you folks the cost of a ticket and a tux (or a gown), and hand out some hardware.

So let’s not waste time. The winner of the Dana Award for the Most Intriguing Web Store of 1999 is… Send.com.

Send, which is based in Waltham, Mass., broke many of what experts call “the rules” of web retailing. Amazon wants to be all things to all people, and announced yesterday that its losses expanded on quarterly sales of $650 million. But Send is focused on one niche, gifts. And not just any gifts, but elegant gifts, fine gifts, the kinds of gifts that men give wives, mistresses, and valued business associates.

The selection is incredibly limited, but broad enough for the purpose. The original heart of the site was its delivery of liquor and fine wines. The company was founded in 1997 and built a network of wine merchants, then gradually expanded into other areas. Today they also let you buy cigars and crystal, as well as “experiences” like golf dates, dinner dates, spa gifts, and (even) high-end cars.

I used the site for an anniversary gift, our annual night out. (When you’ve got two kids, one night a year may be all you get.) Not only is the selection limited among types of gifts, but it’s even more limited within categories. In Atlanta, for instance, the site offers just three restaurants.

But what looks like a weakness is a strength. You can get in, buy, and get out of this site within one minute. Had I wanted to, I could have taken a virtual tour of the restaurant I was interested in, but I’m a guy. The restaurants aren’t the usual suspects, either, but real discoveries the site has personally inspected. (After dinner I talked to the manager of the place we went to.)

While the price of the gift ($99) far exceeded the value of the dinner ($65), I didn’t feel at all ripped-off, because I never would have found the Brooklyn Cafi in Sandy Springs otherwise. Send.com also spent big money designing its “gift box,” which in this case came with a brochure, a napkin, and a tiny gold card that got us great service upon presentation. Had the gift been a surprise, the impact would have been even better.

I was even more impressed by the site’s marketing. They didn’t waste money on unthemed prime-time TV ads or billboards. They bought radio and some cable, mainly on channels guys like, using one voice, that of an officious man called “The Giver.” (He even appears on their phone system.) The accent cuts through the clutter, there’s ample humor, and by targeting its audience the message gets through.

There is some technology behind this. Founder Mike Lannon has developed something called “Merchant Link,” which lets local cigar, wine, and crystal shops process orders directly off the site, so items purchased can arrive in the promised two days. This gives Lannon room to grow the business through marketing to other types of givers or entering other gift niches. Since order fulfillment is done locally, Send.com also doesn’t bear the kind of costs now bedeviling, say, Amazon.

A limited selection, a focused ad campaign, local fulfillment, and attention to detail: These are rare commodities on today’s web. They’re old-fashioned virtues, but they still work.

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