Article | July 26, 2017

Less Is More: Why Online Niche Retailers Are Winning

By Susan Wall, VP of marketing, Oracle + Bronto

Can We Win The War Against Mycoplasma Contamination?

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report garners a lot of publicity — and with good reason. Meeker takes an exhaustive look at where the Internet is going: from mobile commerce trends to the online shopping habits of people around the world.

In her most recent report, there was a brief mention of the strategies successful niche online retailers are using to succeed against the Goliaths of the online retail world. She specifically called out, a pet brand that built engagement with its users and great customer service into $900 million in annual revenue in just five years. PetSmart announced it was acquiring the company earlier this year.

Customer engagement and personalization can let small players build large followings. We’ve seen this work multiple times over in the brands that we work with. Coupled with personalization and tactics like browse recovery, companies that specialize in a specific product — pet medications, men’s dress shirts or trendy natural cosmetics — can succeed in highly-competitive industries.

Gaining Sales With A Dog Surfing Competition

Steve Perissinotto, co-owner of, is quick to mention his company has many competitors, “So, standing out from the competition is hard.” How does he do it?

His company created and sponsored a dog surfing competition. But gaining 19 million viewers of the surfing competition alone doesn’t translate to sales. “Even if we get them to our website to look at pics or a video, the chances of them going on to buy after that casual browse is very small,” Perissinotto says. “So, we need to take that relationship to the next level.” Specifically, VetShop angles to get them to share their email address.

But even after that happens the traditional blast of promotional emails does not ensue. Instead, Perissinotto keeps it content-oriented. These subscribers likely enjoy dogs, surfing dogs, and the outdoors. So, the emails might offer a spot in a surfing dog workshop. Eventually, VetShop gets around to promoting one of its products — and true to the event that brought the subscribers to the company — it’s a waterproof one.

A Traditional Business — With A Highly-Personalized Marketing Approach

Paul Fredrick Menstyle has its roots in the catalog business. Its product has never been sold through stores, and you can obviously buy a button down at any number of stores or websites. So how does Paul Fredrick keep customers coming back? With thoughtful, personalized suggestions based on the subscriber’s site activity.

One big difference from many triggered personalization campaigns is behavior triggers different kinds of messages. A quick browse triggers an automated email with a general recommendation for in-stock, best-selling items with clearance and low-margin items excluded. If the customer goes on a lengthier category search, the recommendations are category-specific. And when they get to a specific product? The recommendation trigger sends a “people who’ve bought that product also liked this product” email. This last category converts at an even higher rate, with open and click rates 200 percent higher than traditional batch-and-blast emails and a 137.5 percent higher conversion rate.

Aligning Messages To Reach Millennials

Being nimble is incredibly important to Tarte Cosmetics’ Stephanie Urban. Like clothing and pet supplies, cosmetics is a very competitive business. The most successful companies have heavily-leveraged social media and content-driven messages and Tarte is no different. You can easily see how its customers use their natural, yet fun, products on their website and in social.

But Urban brings discipline to what could be a content and social media free-for-all, making sure messages align across channels. That’s because their customers are moving with lightning speed across those channels. Critically, Urban says email must tie back to social. “Millennials are just so fast on their phones, opening multiple apps at the same time and constantly browsing through social. They might see our subject line while scrolling through their inbox, but don’t decide to visit until we’ve grabbed their attention on Instagram or SnapChat. Our direct traffic is up significantly, and we attribute some of that to social, so we carefully align our email messaging and timing with our social team.”

When Tarte launched a new product line with YouTube fashion vlogger Grav3yardgirl, they saw the impact of social driving new customers and subscribers. “During that campaign, a majority of the new customers were in a younger demographic than our typical audience. We wanted to make sure we kept them engaged, so we sent a post-purchase message tailored around what they bought. The campaign had much stronger response rates than average editorial messages,” says Urban.

The thread that runs through these three online retailers’ successes is the innovative ways they first connect with an identifiable shopper and what they do when they get that information. Vetshop markets a delightful competition that engages outdoorsy people with dogs and then (eventually) markets a waterproof product; Paul Fredrick provides personalized suggestions that make it easy for customers to stay loyal to its brand; and Tarte recognizes millennials are moving across multiple channels, with email a critical component that draws them back to the site.

Niche retailers can succeed, but it takes a bit of a deep dive into the ways to personalize and engage the shopper.