Claiming Their Turf: 5 Online Innovators

To succeed in online retail, a start-up needs a solid niche, to connect with itscustomers in a unique way. Here are five e-commerce companies that have marked their territories.

More people than ever are going online to shop. They're making more splurge-purchases on luxury sites, doing more comparing of bargain prices, and, yes, they're even "drunk-shopping," as e-Bay mobile vice president Steve Yankovich, revealed last year. As an alternative to brick-and-mortar stores, the e-commerce industry has emerged as a great place to get exactly what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. The best sites carve out a niche in the industry and make sure to connect with their customers in a unique way. Here are five e-commerce companies that have marked their territories—and are primed for big success.

Specialty: Food and wine Headquarters: New York City Leadership: Philip James, Kevin Fortuna (co-founders), Mark Pinney (CFO) Why it's hot: Want some Gilt with that wine? Lot18 is a luxe, membership-only daily deals website that specializes in top-tier wines, gourmet food, and sumptuous culinary experiences. The company's team of experts works with winemakers, food producers, and hospitality chains around the world to select personalized, high-end offers for customers. The 750,000 member company raised $30 million in funding from Accel Partners, New Enterprise Associates, and FirstMark Capital last November, and delivers to all 50 states. Not sure if you can trust Lot18's taste? Its VP of procurement, Dini Rao, was a senior buyer for AmazonWine and helped the company to sell more than half a million bottles of wine in its first year.

Specialty: Sports Headquarters: Los Angeles Leadership: Justin Cener (CEO) Why it's hot: Launched in August 2011, Crowd Seats is the first flash deals site for professional and collegiate sports events around the country. The company purchases excess inventory from teams and brokers, and sells nearly 500 tickets each week for 50% to 90% of the face value. Plus, there are no convenience charges or processing fees, and ticketholders can cash in on Groupon-style discounts via friend referrals. Crowd Seats vouchers are currently available in six U.S. cities, and will expand to four more, including Toronto, by the end of June. But don't think you're getting bottom-barrel deals. Although it hasn't yet received additional funding, Crowd Seats sells nearly 500 tickets each month to showdowns like the Boston Celtics vs. Orlando Magic and the Yankees vs. the Rays.

Specialty: Design Headquarters: New York City Leadership: Jason Goldberg (CEO), Bradford Shane Shellhammer (CCO) Why it's hot: In February 2010, comeback kids, Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shane Shellhamer raised Fab.com from the ashes of their defunct social networking site, Fabulis. The new company is a flash sales marketplace that sells home goods, accessories, clothing, and jewelry from independent designers, and recently updated its mobile app, which is the No. 1 shopping app for design in the Apple App Store. Fab.com raised more than $51 million in funding by December 2011 and acquired German flash sales site Casacanda two months later. The newly christened Fab.de added 300,000 members in just 40 days, bringing the company’s global membership to nearly 2.5 million.

Specialty: Travel Headquarters: New York City Leadership: Elie Seidman (co-founder & CEO), Ariel Charytan (co-founder & CCO), Etyan Seidman (co-founder & VP of product) Why it's hot: Aside from booking a flight, finding a place to stay can be one of the most daunting aspects of travel. Enter Oyster.com: a travel accommodation PI whose 20 hotel "investigators" have covered more than 2,500 hotels in over 100 locations around the world. Investigators take high-res photos of everything at each location—from the mattress to the mini bar—and review it on a one-to-five "pearl" scale. Oyster.com also checks out nearby restaurants to see if they're up to snuff. Last April, the Travel Channel invested $7.5 million in the company and earlier this year, Oyster.com released a free iPad app that includes more than 700,000 undoctored images and interactive maps.

Specialty: Apparel Headquarters: San Francisco Leadership: Charlie Graham (CEO) Why it's hot: Founded in 2005, Shop It to Me is hardly a new kid on the block. Even so, the personal Web shopper makes more than 2 billion product recommendations each month and continues to feature new retailers among its 700-brand list. Recent retailers include Alexander Wang, Milly, and Karen Millen. The company's platforms include Salemails, or personalized newsletters delivered to its 4 million, too-busy-to-browse subscribers; and an expansion of ShopItToMe.com, where bargain hunters can search for new deals. Read more about the e-commerce industry. —Judith Ohikuare

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