Best of the Small Business Web: Adventure Capitalism
BY Leigh Buchanan
Ex Officio, a travel-apparel site, evokes both wanderlust and a lust for its beautifully merchandised products.
Company: Ex Officio Inc. Revenues: $15 million Web address: www.exofficio.com Site launch cost: $148,000 Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows NT, Allaire HomeSite, Netopia Timbuktu Pro, Microsoft Access, Jasc Paint Shop Pro Why we love it: A travel-apparel site evokes both wanderlust and a lust for its beautifully merchandised products Category of success: Design
Vacation marketing has to be compelling. Very compelling. Resorts, tour guides, and organizers of treks through rain forests, deserts, and similarly exotic locales routinely ask customers to exchange thousands of dollars and their year's allotment of leisure time for the opportunity to be transported emotionally as well as geographically. If those companies' advertising fails to excite, consumers will stay home and use the money to buy larger televisions and subscriptions to National Geographic.
Well, the tour-and-ticket industry couldn't find a better traveling companion than Ex Officio, a 13-year-old manufacturer of apparel for those who venture forth, and the very model of on-line retail design. Like the best magalogs, the Seattle company's Web site isn't so much about selling clothes as about selling the whole travel experience. In fact, customers are four screens in before they even encounter a garment for sale. On most retail sites, that would be annoying. But at Exofficio.com the delay gives visitors time to soak up the dreamy vista of a mountain lake in Vietnam, a panoramic display of electric blue Caribbean waters, and a sunset so dazzling it makes you squint. As a result, when visitors finally reach the on-line store, the mundane act of clothes shopping has become the means to a more compelling end: I want to go someplace -- now!
Ex Officio's reinforcement of the "Away Is Good" message should be enormously helpful to the company's hundreds of business partners -- mostly outdoor-clothing retailers and travel companies -- who will be the primary drivers of traffic to the apparel manufacturer's site. Like many CEOs, Ex Officio's Joe Boldan did some serious brow furrowing over how to move to direct sales without twigging off his dealer channel, which includes retailers like REI and Paragon Sports. Boldan's solution was an ambitious affinity program that would make the Web site largely dependent on click-throughs from business partners, rewarding them with 15% of the sale price on purchases made by their referrals. "The retailers typically don't make a clean 15 points on their business, so it's great for them," says Boldan. "And it's terrific for us because we don't have to prospect."
It's also incredibly efficient for customers, who can search for a particular item or browse through practically labeled categories ("In Transit: What will you wear on the plane?" "Stay Dry: Waterproof/breathable outerwear that packs tight, travels light and keeps you dry"). Click on a category to pull up a list of products (and some more of that gorgeous travel photography). Roll your cursor over a product name -- the Active Zip turtleneck, for example -- and a thumbnail image of that shirt appears. Click on the item and you get the enlarged view with an order opportunity; a list of features, fabrics, and colors; and a testimonial quote from a satisfied customer. "We want people to know why we've included these features, why it's important that this fabric dries overnight, and how to pack without lugging six bags from hotel to hotel," says marketing manager Janine Robertson.
But Ex Officio wants its site to be more than just a store. "We want it to be a virtual community for travelers," says Robertson. Communities, of course, are equal parts content and interaction; the company achieves the former with its packing lists and tips and, more ambitiously, with a "Travel Journal" featuring monthly articles on popular destinations.
The interactive piece of Ex Officio's community is a forum through which travelers share advice and relate their globe-trotting experiences. Robertson is considering revving up the conversation by exhorting the company's tour-operator partners to solicit their customers' participation. "We felt it was important to link people not just to other sites but to each other," says Robertson. "Maybe they'll talk about what their favorite Ex Officio products are. Or maybe they'll talk about what's the best restaurant in Bangkok. Either one would be great."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan