Silicon Valley's shopping spree: One Kings Lane, Abe's Market and more

A new wave of e-commerce is coming, backed by tends of millions of dollars from Silicon Valley’s savviest investors, that’s reinventing more than just how consumers shop online.

From One Kings Lane to Plum District and Abe’s Market, from Stella & Dot to Bonobos, we’re seeing a generation of companies that are rethinking relationships with vendors and acting as middlemen and marketplaces as much as they are merchants.

Today, One Kings Lane, an online home-décor seller, announced a new $23 million round of funding from Kleiner Perkins, its earliest backer, and Greylock Partners, a firm masterminding the social Web from Facebook on down.

That follows right after Thursday’s announcement of $3.4 million raised for Abe’s Market, a marketplace for natural goods, in a round led by Accel Partners, an investor in Groupon. And just last month, we saw a purchase of a $37 million stake in Stella & Dot, a startup which sells jewelry through a network of independent sellers, by Sequoia Capital, and an $8.5 million investment by Kleiner Perkins in Plum District, a mom-focused, Amway-like Groupon competitor in the daily deals market. December saw Bonobos, an online menswear retailer, raise $18.5 million from Accel Partners and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

It’s clear that Accel and Kleiner are taking the lead in investing in the next wave of e-commerce, one that emphasizes social links and an engaging — even fun — user experience that matches the thrill of shopping offline.

But a common thread between these businesses is the extent to which they’re shedding the old image of e-commerce as a capital-intensive business laden with expensive warehouses and inventory and embracing a matchmaking role between suppliers and consumers.

Abe’s Market may be the purest example of this. Many manufacturers of natural goods are microbusinesses — lone entrepreneurs or mom-and-pop shops. They struggle to get their wares into stores, and when they sell through megasites like Amazon.com or eBay, they find themselves so low down in the search results that they fail to do much volume.

Cofounder Jon Polin told me that he views Abe’s Market as an online analog to the farmer’s markets where many of these vendors sell their products today. Abe’s is the merchant of record on purchases, meaning it shows up on customers’ credit-card bills, but it doesn’t stock any merchandise. Instead, it passes orders on to its 300 or so vendors. Its secret may lie in making the experience easy for vendors, who are usually stuck with awkward Web interfaces, arcane rules, and demanding fulfillment processes. In exchange for taking 30 percent of a transaction’s retail price, Abe’s handles shipping costs — and even provides a printable three-part order slip that a vendor can use to pick an order, pack it, and send it (on Abe’s dime).

Plum District, too, takes a different approach in dealing with the small businesses it solicits for deals. Unlike Groupon and LivingSocial, the two biggest players in the deep-discount daily deals market, Plum District doesn’t have its own sales force. Instead, it solicits independent salespeople, mostly moms, to both cajole local businesses into offering discounts and then signing up customers to take the deal. Since the moms get a cut of the action, they’re motivated to make the discount offer work for the local business. That’s an innovative take on a key part of the daily-deals model, which requires aggressive, one-on-one solicitation of offers from businesses.

Stella & Dot, like Plum District, uses a network of independent sellers. CEO and cofounder Jessica Herrin recently took some time out to demo her new mobile Web app. There are a ton of new shopping apps, from players like Amazon.com and eBay on down. But they’re all designed around making it easier for consumers to check prices and purchase goods on the go. Here’s the genius of Stella & Dot’s app: It’s designed for the independent style consultants who sell Stella & Dot jewelry from their homes at “trunk show” parties, letting them play videos and share ideas off a smartphone or tablet. Imagine handing your iPhone over to a friend to show them a gorgeous new bracelet: That’s far friendlier — and likelier to lead to a sale — than awkwardly turning a laptop around. By investing in technology for its sellers, Stella & Dot is making a smart bet on its business model.

One Kings Lane, the home-décor startup backed by Kleiner and Greylock today, may look much like Rue La La or Gilt Groupe, a flash-sales merchant which offers event-driven, short-term sales of limited quantities of merchandies at attractive prices. But unlike many flash-sales operators, One Kings Lane isn’t taking on much inventory, CEO Doug Mack told me.

Because of the startup’s low inventory levels, One Kings Lane’s inventory turns — an industry measure for how swiftly merchandise moves off the shelves — are “an order of magnitude above the industry average,” said Mack.

The metric isn’t even that meaningful, he adds, because about half of its orders are drop-shipped, or shipped directly from the manufacturer to the consumer; a third are bulk-shipped after a flash-sales event, which means they stay in a third-party fulfillment warehouse only as long as it takes to break them down and ship them out; and the remainder are kept in stock by One Kings Lane so that it can offer certain items, mostly ones suitable as gifts, year-round.

As a result, little of One Kings Lane’s latest round is going to working capital, Mack told me. Instead, he’s investing in technology, merchandising, marketing, and customer service — areas where there’s far more potential for long-term payoff than stocking more inventory.

Then there’s Bonobos. Like Mack, Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn is proud of his inventory turns. You might not be able to find a given size on Bonobos, but the site takes your email and notifies you when it’s back in stock — a way to quietly gauge demand before placing orders from manufacturers. Bonobos also “curates” some categories of menswear, like accessories, rather than designing its own, passing on orders to other menswear companies compatible with its brand. Both practices serve to keep inventory low.

These fundings total about $90 million — not a huge bet compared to, say, Groupon and LivingSocial’s megafinancings. But they show that e-commerce is heating up as a sector, and that venture capitalists are focused on businesses which are rethinking every aspect of selling.

In the 1990s, e-commerce took the catalog and the superstore online, but didn’t change anything on the back end: Amazon.com was just the reinvention of mail order, the Sear’s Catalog 2.0. eBay popularized the idea of inventory-free marketplaces matching supply and demand. And Groupon showed that everyone loves a deal — both consumers and businesses. Taking inspiration from the early players, these new e-commerce businesses are mixing and matching elements of all these models and creating something genuinely new. That’s why I suspect some of these investments may prove to be the real bargain.

[Photo via TA Lucas]


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