No more hunt and peck: An outlet store on the Internet

While most clothing retailers are creating a combination of e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar strategy for selling their merchandise, Ken Sieff decided to create his off-price outlet store online. In an interview, the founder of explains.

At the age of 26, Ken Seiff started Pivot Rules, a start-up that created and marketed a line of golf apparel targeting the growing population of golfers under 40. Based on the philosophy that “just because you play golf doesn’t mean you have to look like you do,” the company’s golf sportswear collection scored at retail. In 1998, after experiencing the frustrations of the off-price apparel industry, Seiff hatched Bluefly to bring the unique attributes of the Internet to this neglected corner of the e-conomy.

A conversation with Ken Seiff, CEO and founder of Bluefly
Q: In 1998, after seven years on the wholesale side of the apparel business, you decided to virtualize the off-price outlet store retail experience. Can you describe the factors that went into your decision?
Seiff: Pivot Rules was at the forefront of the golf clothing revolution and was one of the first companies to design clothing specifically for a new generation of golfers. At the same time that golf was becoming more popular, computers were becoming more powerful and more prevalent. Golf gave us Greg Norman and Tiger Woods. Computers gave us Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Pivot Rules set out to find a way to integrate this dynamic new world of the Internet into its business model. That’s when we launched Bluefly.

Q: You considered opening brick-and-mortar stores or a catalog. You did neither. Why a Web site?
Seiff: The more we looked, the more we saw that a Web site for moving apparel had the best potential in the near and medium term. We reached two major conclusions. First, the Web appealed to consumers looking for value and savings. Second, demographics were favorable. We concluded that the e-conomy was skewing toward women consumers, a fact that would result in enormous growth in demand for apparel because women buy three times as much apparel through direct-to-consumer channels as men.

Q: How important is personalization?
Seiff: Intensely important. In my entire life, I have never been to a retail store that carried only the brands I like. I’ve been to stores that carry brands I like but they also carry brands I don’t like. I’ve had catalogs that give me a lot of what I want but I’m usually not interested in most of the products in the catalog. We built Bluefly to address subgroups of customers who want to look at only what interests them and nothing else:

Q: How does the Net help?
Seiff: The Net allows us to design the store so that each customer can filter out the noise and see only the items and products and brands that interest them. We have bisected the shopping experience so that a shopper can find a specific product, such as [a] white dress shirt, or can look for a specific designer and shop by concept area. That’s what personalization is in its broadest sense.

Q: What’s been the biggest surprise of doing business in the e-conomy?
Seiff: I’ll name two. First, the number of unsolicited and positive e-mails I have received is truly overwhelming. I mean, in the few months that Bluefly has been up, I’ve received more thank-you e-mails than I did in my seven years in the wholesale business. The second surprise is how quickly we can respond to trends. On the wholesale side, if we had an inkling of a trend, it would take up to a year to bring it to market. Today, if we see a product that’s hot, we can respond in days, if not hours.

Q: What’s one thing you’ve had to let go of to make Bluefly take off?
Seiff: The concept of dinner at home. Because everything in the e-conomy is new and undefined, I feel I am trailblazing every day. As a result, no decision is easy. In seven years of wholesaling, I learned to make many decisions quickly, based on some level of experience. In the e-conomy, there truly is no experience from which to judge and gauge decisions. As a result, every decision takes a little more time; and every day is consequently a little longer.

A freelance writer in Geneva, IL, John Kador is the co-author of Net Ready: Strategies for Success in the E-conomy (McGraw-Hill).

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