NEW YORK — Does the world really need another e-commerce site? With some 200,000 peddling goods in the U.S. alone, according to RJ Metrics, starting an online company that cuts through the noise would seem a task for true fools.
Or true believers like Galyn Bernard and Christina Carbonell. Friends, fellow mothers and former marketing execs at Diapers.com — which was renamed Quidsi and bought by Amazon in 2011 — the duo recently launched Primary.com, a children's clothing site that shuns fashion in favor of inexpensive staples.
"We don't sell anything over $25, the idea being that what we have are basics, like polos and hoodies and pants, that parents just need to reorder when kids grow older," says Bernard. "What we learned at Diapers.com is that parents love quick and easy. And we feel no one right now sees clothes as replenishment items."
Think of Primary as the Ford Motel T plant of kids duds. While the clothes come in more than just black — there are 20 colors covering 29 styles — the idea is to offer time-crunched parents simple choices at low prices.
"We don't follow fashion trends, so we have fixed design and development costs and a five-year style turnover," says Carbonell. "It all adds up to cost savings."
She pulls a few items off a rack in the company's small brightly colored offices across from the Empire State Building.
"Here's our hoodie, which is $20 compared to $35 at a major competitor, and this reversible sundress is $24, compared to $65," she says. "These are prices that make sense of kids clothes, unless you really have to buy that cashmere sweater."
Launched in March after a year of research and development, most of it in the café of a nearby sports club, Primary is a lean machine with only nine employees.
Fabrics and Indian factories were sourced by a partner company in Portland, Ore., and funding stands at $3.2 million, with the latest round of $2.5 million led by early-stage investors at Homebrew and Harrison Metal.
While it's tough to start a new brand from scratch, the incentives to try are powerful.
Global e-commerce sales are projected to continue their annual double-digit growth, racing from about $1.5 trillion today to more than $2 trillion by 2017, according to eMarketer. And the 10% of U.S. sales that currently happen online will hit 30% by 2020, making one wonder about the future of stores.
Raising money wasn't that difficult for these e-commerce veterans, but they did find that some investors didn't get their pitch ("They tended to be younger men who weren't parents," says Bernard) while at least one early interviewer assumed Primary was a vanity project ("We were asked if our husbands funded us, which made us pause," she says).
The founders won't disclose sales to date, but say they're pleased with Primary's progress and note that 25% of customers have already reordered using a feature called My Closet, which keeps track of your go-to items.
The biggest challenge for any start-up, particularly one on a thin budget, is letting consumers know you exist. Bernard and Carbonell say they intend to experiment with social media, targeted direct mail and perhaps consider catalog inserts.
"Much like with Diapers.com, we're offering a solution as opposed to fashion, and we know that that audience is highly targetable and viral," says Bernard. "But the biggest thing we can do is make sure that when you come to our site for the first time, the experience leaves you wanting to return."
Primary is capitalizing on a radical shift in retail. A generation ago, building a new brand took years and required one or more brick-and-mortar stores. Today, tech breakthroughs have not only brought stay-at-home convenience to shopping, but also have made the relationship between brand and consumer more intimate.
Big-data analytics allow retailers to both parse detailed purchasing patterns as well as directly interact with shoppers through emailed promotions and reminders.
What's more, stores are no longer a requirement, as evidenced by the success of companies such as Warby Parker (glasses), Harry's (men's shaving) and Bonobos(men's clothing) — though ironically each of those three brands is slowly opening flagship shops to provide a more hands-on experience with their products.
"The good news for Primary is that the kids' clothing category is a $30 billion a year business — but it's also a crowded and competitive space," says Elizabeth Spaulding, head of Bain & Company's global digital practice.
"You've got your Targets and Walmarts already providing low-cost, one-stop shopping. So the question is, is that mom or dad going to go off those sites over to Primary just to shop for basic clothing?" she says. "They'll see soon enough if their value proposition is big enough, and if they've really found an untapped need."
The company's founders are convinced from both personal experience and informal research that parents will embrace their pitch for low-key threads.
"We feel kids' clothing doesn't have to be complicated," says Carbonell. "They don't have to have logos or sayings or embellishments. Good luck finding a hoodie today without a logo. And people are telling us they find our approach refreshing."
The key to Primary's success will be translating this early goodwill into long-term repeat customers.
"Quidsi was all based on the relationship with the customer, as opposed to soliciting an impulse-based purchase," says Carbonell. "If we stay focused on that, we'll be OK."
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY3:31 p.m. EDT June 25, 2015