Editor's Note: We decided to do this Case Study on Design Within
Reach (DWR) because three different MarketingSherpa readers
emailed us copies of this company's newsletter saying, "Isn't it
beautiful?" In fact one reader told us, "I wish I could buy a
bigger house so I can fill it up with more furniture from them!"
At the same time, we got a review copy of the new book 'F'd
Companies: Spectacular dot-come flameouts' in the mail, which
included a review of why Furniture.com went bust and other
companies selling furniture online probably would too.
We wondered, how has DWR been able to stay in business -- and
reach profitability -- and does their gorgeous email newsletter
have anything to do with it? Read on…CHALLENGE
When Rob Forbes founded Design Within Reach (DWR) in
1999, it must have been about the only new San Francisco-based
company that year that was not a dot-com. In fact, the Company
did not even have a Web site.
Instead, Forbes started the old fashioned way -- with a printed
direct mail catalog.
The response was overwhelming. Sales started coming in, but so
did questions. Brian Lynch, DWR's Online Producer, says, "One of
the most popular questions was 'Your catalog is great -- where's
your Web site?' Of course we had been meant to do a Web site
someday, it was at the back of our minds. This response made
us realize, ok we NOW need to put something together online
that is just as strong as the catalog." That is "now" as in within
just a couple of months.CAMPAIGN
In the rush of getting the initial site up quickly,
everything could not be perfect all at once. Lynch then decided to
focus his energy on getting the three most critical factors right
from the start:
Critical Factor #1: A Company-Wide Design Esthetic
Graphic design is critically important both because DWR is
marketing to a very visually oriented audience (decorators,
architects, and their clients), and because a strong design
esthetic can be of enormous aid in branding.
Instead of creating the Web site in a vacuum, Lynch and his team
tried to match design elements and general esthetics from the
catalog as closely as possible. This does not mean they simply
copied catalog pages.
(In fact Lynch says of catalogs that published duplicate
electronic versions of their print catalog, "That's sad. It's a
real missed opportunity. Paper and Web are two different
mediums. You can do so much more with a site than you can do in
a catalog -- up-sell, suggest other products, show more
photographs, offer more items….")
Lynch chose to duplicate a series of design elements from the
catalog -- including sans serif typefaces, white space, ultra-
thin black lines as separators, and red boxes with white reverse
type that match the logo -- while building an entirely
interactive site. The elements combine to form a feeling of
clean lines and modernity that matches the products DWR sells.
"It's a whole uncluttered feel."
The site in particular, stands out from other e-retail sites
because there is so much white space. Lynch says, "I read all
these articles saying white space doesn't work online. Customers
don't like it, don't find it appealing, blah, blah, blah."
Luckily the articles were wrong. "One of the most frequent
esthetic compliments we get is people like that white space,
because the less white space, the more clutter there is. When
you get to a product page, we want you to see that product, focus
on the details of that product, and the story behind that
This simplicity of graphic design was part of the site's
interactive design esthetic. Pictures and graphics are
configured so they do not slow page load time. There is no Flash
or audio or anything fancy that might slow site speed. The site
is clean and fast.
Critical Factor #2: Basic Navigation to Grow From
Lynch knew that once launched, the site would continue to grow
and evolve dramatically over time. He absolutely did not want
to do an all-new site re-launch every 18 months (as was once
recommended) to upgrade to a new look and/or new navigation.
He explains, "We didn't want to switch things around. Customers
want consistency with evolution. It's a real challenge to change
it without jarring or confusing customers."
So, in addition to a clearly branded design esthetic, the Web
team agreed to a basic navigation skeleton and framework from day
one, which has not changed despite the addition of hundreds more
products. The navigation bars and the layout have remained
substantially the same. Additional bells and whistles, such as
the recently launched option to view products in different
colors, are added in as non-disruptively as possible.
Critical Factor #3: Building a Brand Relationship, Not Just Sales
Although DWR definitely wanted to make immediate sales online,
the Web team had the concurrent goal to establish a branded,
ongoing relationship with their marketplace.
Lynch explains, "We're trying to create an experience that's more
than just a shallow interaction. We want to share with you why
we're selling this product and the stories behind this product,
not just click here, add this to your cart, you're out the door,
DWR's site accomplishes this in two ways:
- A home page that focuses more on establishing credibility
(with a gorgeous photo, magazine quotes, and famous customer
names) and offering super-easy-to-use navigation, than on pushing
- An editorial section called "Designers" featuring biographies
of dozens of the designers whose products are offered. This is
the type of information you might expect to find in a coffee-
table book or design school textbook than in an eretail site.
Three months after the site launched, the DWR Web team took the
next logical step and started a companion email newsletter. The
newsletter's importance in growing a branded, educational
relationship with visitors and customers is obvious from the
minute you visit DWR's home page, where a newsletter opt-in box
is first-and-foremost in the top central spot.
This means highly valuable screen real estate is devoted to
something most eretailers hide on the lower left corner of their
navigation bar, or do not even have on the home page at all.
Initially the newsletter was published in text-only because the
Web team was too busy with site basics to focus on it. However
the minute they had the chance, about six months later, they
upgraded to HTML.
Newsletter design esthetics again match both the catalog and site
very closely. Anyone who sees one would recognize the visual
branding of the others instantly. The newsletter's philosophy is
also recognizably DWR's. Instead of focusing on product offers,
the newsletter features editorial.
In fact, it feels as though an upscale design magazine just
emailed you a page of their best editorial, packed with high
quality photos and links back to more fascinating stuff online.
Creating this high-quality editorial is not easy. Lynch admits,
"It's one of the biggest projects we have in the marketing
department. It takes an immense amount of time. It's not just
'ok we're going to sell a product now so pull the copy we wrote
six months ago and stick it in there.'"
Luckily Founder Rob Forbes is able to help out. Lynch says, "He
travels to meet with top designers all over the world, and he's
able to interview them and takes digital photographs left and
right." Whenever Forbes gets back from a road trip, his marketers
grab his digital camera and interview notes as fodder for future
issues. "We'll download 200 pictures he's taken and find the
ones we want to use."
DWR is profitable (despite the recession) and 40%
of total company sales are currently made online. That does not
mean these sales are 100% Web generated. DWR's sales channels
(which now include two brick and mortar retail stores) are all
DWR is truly a multi-channel retailer with a single branded
message. You can order a catalog from the site. You can check
out the site from an iMac terminal prominently located in the
retail stores. Both the site and catalog encourage you to call a
toll-free number if you have any questions - or simply prefer
ordering by phone. You can email customer service directly from
then site or the newsletter.
Although the Web is the "most constant" sales channel, Lynch says
he can see a definite "spike" in online sales whenever the
catalog is mailed. There's also a definite bump whenever the
email newsletter goes out.
To take advantage of this bump, DWR does something clever we
have not noticed anywhere else. Instead of sending out a bland
welcome message to new opt-ins and then making them wait for the
next issue to be published, the email system sends them a copy of
the latest issue immediately.
Last year, enough sales were driven from the email newsletter
that DWR changed its frequency from twice monthly to weekly. The
team watched results carefully, worried they might see a
corresponding rise in unsubscribes or lowered click through
rates. No such thing happened.
In fact, subscriptions increased 300%. Lynch says happily, "We
actually saw an increase in people forwarding the newsletter to
other people! Customers seem to like getting it every week."
Certainly the feedback is tremendous, "We send it on Wednesdays
because it is the middle of the week, but we get messages saying
'I love your newsletter. I spend my Saturday mornings with a cup
of coffee reading your newsletter.'"
Although DWR only ships to the US and Canada, the newsletter's
popularity overseas may serve as a barometer for potential
corporate expansion. Lynch says, "It's known all around the
world. Our founder was walking down the street in Paris, and
there it was, printed out and displayed in a shop window."
To see a copy of the newsletter, click on the link for a sample