Digital Media Magazine
November 06, 2002
Susan Barone is building her Web business with a pristine attention to privacy. Each woman who presents her e-mail address at one of Barone's three plus-size apparel Web sites is told precisely how that information will be used, and that it will not be traded or shared without her explicit consent. Then she must check a box to opt in to the Uniquelyme bimonthly newsletter.
This level of care understandably results in a very slow acquisition rate. Since starting her first site (www.uniquelyme.com) two years ago, she's collected a database of only 76,000 names. That's a tiny total after nearly three years work, but that doesn't bother Barone a bit.
In all that time, she's had only 12 complaints. And, her opt-out rate is practically nil.
“I'm very proud of that. Our customers really want to hear what we have to tell them,” said Barone, CEO of Smithtown, NY-based Uniquely Me.
The newsletter reads like a community site, with submissions from readers and a column from a plus-size actress and model detailing her bi-coastal jet-setting, as well as promotions.
Though she doesn't yet track conversion rates, e-newsletter recipients deliver a phenomenal 20% clickthrough to the Web site, according to Uniquely Me's e-mail provider Mindshare Design Inc.
“When you build your list responsibly and cater to the actual needs of your customers, you get a higher open rate and a lower churn rate,” said Ted Bernard, head of the standards and practices department at Mindshare. The San Francisco company believes so strongly in the future of opt-in that it refuses to take on a client unless they follow the same acquisition procedures as Barone.
The house file is so responsive that Barone has added two more Web sites for women size 12 or larger, based on what customers and other visitors to the site tell her.
“We get over 1 million hits a month on all three sites,” Barone said. “Just for uniquelyme.com, on a monthly basis, more than 85% are return users.”
She won't reveal revenue, but said she did “as much business in the first 60 days of 2002 as in all of 2001.”
Barone sees much opportunity. In 2001, more than one-third of American women (36.8%) purchased a size 14 or larger, according to market research firm NPD Group.
“These women want cute stuff so badly…instead of grandma clothes,” Barone said. “There are a lot of designers out there for this market, but consumers can't find them.”
Now Barone is trying to remedy that.
Uniquelyme.com is a portal for other merchants of plus-size clothing. Barone collects the top fashions for each type of apparel on Web pages so visitors who are looking for, say, swimsuits, can click on the photograph of the suit they like and go straight to the Web site that carries it. J.Jill, Coldwater Creek, Nordstrom, Spiegel Shop4U and Zaftique, among dozens of others, place a button on the Uniquelyme.com home page that clicks to their Web sites. They pay Uniquely Me a commission of between 5% and 20% on each sale.
Visitors flocked to the button that asked their opinion about the offerings. Some 10% also routinely respond to profiles and surveys asking their size, what items comprise their wardrobe, what specific clothing they are searching for, how much they want to pay, their age, profession and annual income.
In April 2001, Barone and her sister, co-owner Cheryl Anderson, who runs the call center, warehouse and other operations from Edwardsville, IL, debuted Alwaysforme.com, an e-commerce site featuring items customers told them were the hardest to locate: bras and panties, lingerie, swimwear, social occasion and daytime dresses and a few business suits.
Barone contacted designers and manufacturers to produce the garments customers clamored for. “We found out from our surveys what styles they wanted and what they wanted to pay, and ordered [what] we needed,” Barone said. “We will never be a department store on the Web. We will cater to what our women say are hard to find.”
Last March, the partners started Plussizeliving.com, where plus-size businesses — retailers, designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs — can market through the site. They pay to advertise. In September, a catalog-listing program rolled out on plussizeliving.com, in which customers go through a five-step process and complete a profile to order a catalog. “If customers go that far, they really want your catalog,” Barone pointed out.
Since Barone doesn't rent e-mail lists, she drives people to her sites with search engine marketing. By optimizing over 100 plus-size terms on her sites, Uniquelyme.com comes up high on the list of search results at Yahoo! and Google.