Conquering an Ecommerce Niche: A love affair with the Finnish Aesthetic

    By Michael Goodwin | Small Business

    Quick, when I say Finland what do you think of?

    No, not Angry Birds.

    If your next response happens to be,that means Ben Horn is doing his job right.

    Finnstyle is just one of six extremely successful niche ecommerce sites Horn operates on the Yahoo Store platform under the umbrella of Our WorldShops—sites that range from Finnish design treasures to glass birds, umbrellas, and even shower curtains. It may sound exotic, but Horn's niche is highly profitable. In 2012, Our World Shops enjoyed gross sales in the $3 to $5 million range.

    Flair and Functionality

    The story of Our World Shops is a romance that took decades to come to fruition. In the mid-1970s, while studying in Finland as a foreign high school exchange student, Our World Shops' soon-to-be owner, founder, and CEO Ben Horn became enamored with Finnish design, which he found full of flair and functionality. After he completed his studies, Ben returned to the United States—but that love affair with the Finnish aesthetic never ended. He spent the next 25 years working as a manager at a couple of airlines, and starting a computer software company. By the year 2000 he decided that he wanted to try internet retailing.

    "I started as a home-based business," recalls Horn, "selling iittala glassware. Our first web site was called Finnish gifts. It wasn't the first site to offer products from Finland, but I did a better job than most with presentation, customer service, and all the other intangibles. Iittala is one of the big Finnish brands; they make glassware, porcelain, and stainless steel products. We're still one of their biggest American dealers today."

    Wasn't it hard to sign them up?

    "Back then, 13 years ago, it wasn't that hard. Ecommerce was still pretty young. Today it's trickier to get companies to go with a start-up ecommerce site."

    Conquering the Niche

    Finnish gifts was an immediate success. "Of course it was a home-based business," Horn points out. "We didn't have rent, we didn't have employees. I think it was about six months before I hired my first part-time employee and moved the warehouse out of my house. It caught on pretty quick. Today we have ten full-time employees. We also have a brick-and-mortar store in Minneapolis with some part-time employees working there. On the internet site we have a four-person marketing department, some warehouse employees,and a small office staff."

    Within one year Horn opened a second site, Aalto, devoted to designs by Alvar Aalto, the most famous product designerand architect in Finland. Horn is still operating that site today. "After that we started a web site called Glassbirds because we were selling a lot of these collectible, mouth-blown glass birds. All three sites were opened by 2002. Then we opened Finnstyle, which is now our biggest site; in fact it eventually ate up our first site, Finnish gifts. We were conquering the niche on products from Finland."

    Not without a few speed-bumps, though. "I've had a lot of products that I imported from Europe only to find that they didn't sell," says Horn. "We also opened a previous retail store in a very high-rent district, and that lost a lot of money. We've been more successful with our current store, but we run it with very low overhead."

    Straight Lines, Timeless

    What is it about Finnish design that appeals to Horn?

    "I think it appeals to many, many people," he says."It's a very clean aesthetic, straight lines, timeless… A lot of designs on our web site that people think are really modern are from the 1930s and1940s. Our best-selling piece of glassware is called the Aaltovase, by Alvar Aalto, and that was designed in 1937. We still sell hundreds of them. It’s a perennial favorite as a wedding or business gift."

    Promotions and marketing are serious business for Our World Shops."We have four people in our marketing department," Horn explains. "One of them spends most of his time on pay-per-click for all six sites. We're constantly doing tie-ins with bloggers, magazines, TV shows. We even do press releases, though these days I'm not sure how much value there is to them."

    Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Houzz, Pinterest

    Senior Marketing Communications Specialist Erica Dao is in charge of social media for Our World Shops. "The wonderful thing about social media," she says, "is that it enables us to engage with our customers directly. After all, social media is about being social. It's also a great way to reach potential customers. We're active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Houzz and Pinterest, and we try to provide a distinct experience on each outlet.

    "Facebook houses our largest audience, so our efforts are greatest there. We post everything from new products to facts about Finland. Our goal is not only to draw attention to our web site and products, but to engage with customers on topics that interest them.

    "Instagram and Twitter enable our followers to go beyond the 'velvet rope.' From images of employees trying on new Marimekko dresses to brand new products right out of the box, consumers are getting behind-the-scenes access to our company—not just professionally-staged photos. Houzz and Pinterest are more straightforward marketing vehicles; they give us an opportunity to expose people to our extensive selection of products."

    Umbrellas and Shower Curtains

    Eventually, Horn expanded to selling products that weren't made in Finland. Today he has a web site devoted solely to umbrellas, another one focused on shower curtains, and yet another called AlwaysMod that sells products designed in the mod style.

    "We're a niche ecommerce retailer," he says, "so we're always looking for more niches. There aren't any products that aren't being sold online already, so we're looking for niches where we can get a good share of the market. Our umbrella site is a good example. We started that about two and a half years ago, and it's been growing steadily. We're hoping to become one of the biggest umbrella retailers in the country."

    Why should someone order an expensive umbrella from Horn's site when she can walk into the neighborhood 99-cent store and pick one up for a couple of bucks?

    "We learned a long time ago that you can't sell a cheap item and make a profit," Horn declares. "So we go after the higher-end products in the niche. Most of our umbrellas are between $35-$195, and at that point we can make a decent profit. The $195 umbrella is hand-made in Italy. We have to have that one model for people who refuse to buy umbrellas made in China," he laughs. "If you don't want an umbrella made in China, you gotta fork over $195."

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