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Publishers Weekly Bookselling

New Age Clicks-and-Mortar
Margaret Jones -- 2/14/00
ConsciousMedia.com finds service is the key to both Web businesses and "terrestrial" bookstores

What makes an e-tailer successful in the $5-billion-a-year books-music-video-for-body/mind/spirit industry (aka New Age market)?

A lot that one might expect of e-commerce in general, regardless of whether the product is books or camping gear. You've got to make sure your Web site is up. You need powerful, scalable servers that can handle the traffic on your site. The shopping experience must be easy. The order form must work. Credit-card information must be secure. And so on.

But there are many other important, and perhaps more ephemeral, aspects to selling New Age online, according to James Jacobson, founder and president of ConsciousMedia.com.

Like Having a Sauna at the Office?
With a comprehensive 50,000-title database, representing virtually everything currently in New Age, along with a hosting relationship with Yahoo!, ConsciousMedia.com bills itself as the Amazon.com of its niche. The attractive, easy-to-navigate site lists 26 categories, from Angels to Y2K. The Web version of an author appearance is the author interview (the company contracts with freelancers for the profiles). Interviews with writers such as Louise Hay, Rudolph Ballentine, M.D., Terence McKenna, Thomas Moore, Caroline Myss, Starhawk and Ken Wilber are posted. ConsciousMedia.com's answer to media reviews is the "guru review." Acknowledgement of the sacred guru tradition notwithstanding, the company invites customers interested in providing quality commentary on any of the 50,000 titles to join its "guru team" by submitting a review by e-mail. Those chosen to review products -- "guru reviewers" -- are then periodically sent review copies of various products, which are then highlighted on the site.

"We've built and synthesized the best of a big metaphysical bookstore and put it online, while using the same matrix that is used with mega-online competitors," Jacobson told PW. And although he won't disclose financials for his one-year-old company, he admits to doing "phenomenally well." So well, in fact, that ConsciousMedia.com plans to go public by the end of this year.

"We're outperforming all our projections, and our projections were optimistic," he added.

ConsciousMedia.com , Alexandria, Va., occupies an attractive, four-story, totally feng-shui'd building that provides its approximately 20 employees not only with state-of-the-art technology, but with a sauna, a hot tub, a steam shower and an opportunity to pursue their own spiritual practices on site, exchange ideas or even take time off to volunteer in the community.

Amenities notwithstanding, Jacobson calls his company a "clicks-and-mortar" business, because in addition to its core enterprise as an online book retailer, ConsciousMedia.com hits the road a half dozen times a year, manifesting temporary "terrestrial" stores at a variety of book-driven trade shows and conferences relating to body, mind and spirit themes.

A recent Whole Life Expo in Ph nix, for example, featured authors Marianne Williamson, Lynn Andrews, Dannion Brinkley, James Van Praagh, Gladys McGarey and almost 50 others. ConsciousMedia.com occupied a 2,000-square-foot space in the center of the convention floor. The e-tailer trucked in its own shelving, point-of-purchase merchandise, Internet stations, plus a large selection of titles.

Over the three-day period Jacobson estimated they saw 5,000 to 6,000 customers. Despite the impressive figures, the trade show part of the business is primarily a promotional tool to market ConsciousMedia.com's core mission -- to provide people with books, music and video at prices discounted up to 40% -- "which we can't afford to do when you take everything on the road," he said. "Through these shows we're building our customer base and encouraging people to visit us online. That's important to the extent that it's furthering our mission to help raise planetary consciousness by assisting people to raise their own consciousness through the products and information we offer."

Jacobson's ConsciousMedia.com is an offshoot of his 10-year-old New Age video company, Wave Communications, which occupies the same building. The e-tailer eschews one of the common misperceptions concerning the Web business concept of "scalability" -- that which depicts a single entrepreneur sitting on a beach with a cell phone, raking in the profits while his entire business has been outsourced, from running the site to fulfillment.

"That may be scalable," said Jacobson, "but it is not sustainable. When you outsource, you're basically creating a business with very low barriers to entry, while your customers have no allegiance to you." The whole point of the Internet, he maintains, is that, just like a physical store, you're trying to build long-term relationships. "It is an investment," he added. "You don't jump in and just try to make a quick buck. A customer -- especially in this sphere -- likes to do business with a company that has values."

So when ConsciousMedia.com gets e-mails from customers, they bend over backwards to provide answers. "We work very hard to provide exceptional customer service," said Jacobson. "I think that's what distinguishes the best Web retailers.

"In the beginning we weren't very good at that," he admitted. "When a product was back-ordered, we assumed the customer would chill until we had it in, then we would ship. It d sn't work that way. You need to constantly communicate. So if somebody ordered seven books from us and one is backordered, we'll provide continuous feedback. Those e-mails make all the difference in the world. It totally changes the experience for the customer."

Fulfillment is one of those critical areas that make a Web business fly -- or die. "I don't believe in outsourcing anything, especially fulfillment," confirmed Jacobson. "It's important to control that, because that's what the customer sees." ConsciousMedia.com uses New Leaf and Ingram for just-in-time delivery. The distributors send books to the company's fulfillment center in Alexandria, where they are repackaged and sent via Priority Mail. ConsciousMedia.com offered a flat rate of $4.95 during the recent Christmas season, regardless of how many books were ordered by a customer. Though the number of returns have been insignificant, the e-tailer offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee on all products.

Buying for a Web business means keeping data on new titles current, as well as listening to customers. ConsciousMedia.com is big on special orders -- if a title isn't listed and a customer wants it, it will be listed. In addition to carrying all the titles of large and medium presses, the ConsciousMedia.com Access Program provides opportunities for self-publishers and independent producers and musicians in the body/mind/spirit market to sell their titles directly to the retail consumer on a consignment basis. To participate in the program, the title must have an ISBN or UPC code (the company will assist authors in getting the code, if necessary) and copies of the product must be submitted. Inventory/sales reports are issued monthly by the company and when the title or product sells, a check is issued.

Marketing dot.com to Booksellers
Reflecting on the many mom-and-pop metaphysical bookstores trying to compete with the likes of Amazon.com, B&N and Borders, Jacobson decried the demise of many of these small independents that essentially launched the New Age movement -- at the very time when interest in the subject has burgeoned into the mainstream. "But that also speaks to our ability to bridge those two trends," he believes.

Jacobson touted ConsciousMedia.com's Partnership Program, which it has been aggressively marketing to bricks-and-mortar stores through the International New Age Trade Show (INATS), held each summer in Denver, as a means for New Age bookstores to gain a foothold in the exploding e-commerce marketplace. This revenue-sharing online affiliation allows both ConsciousMedia.com and its bookstore partners to grow their businesses through a symbiotic relationship and, at the same time, "spread much-needed conscious and spiritual awareness."

Participating bookstores promote ConsciousMedia.com through a link on their own site, or ConsciousMedia.com can provided a unique Web address (URL) for partners. Partners can link to ConsciousMedia's home page, a department page, a feature page, or to a specific product page. Unlike other e-tail programs, which set sales quotas, limit the types and categories of products on which commissions are paid or the amount of commission each product earns, and require a specific customer "click-trail," every referred purchase receives a 10% commission -- no exceptions. Membership in the partnership program is free and is nonexclusive. In addition, ConsciousMedia.com has developed a number of initiatives to assist its partner stores with promotions. One of these includes publicizing in-store book signings and events. Another allows stores to perform an online query of authors within a certain geographical area for in-store events.

What's the payoff for the e-tailer shelling out 10% of a transaction in commission? Certainly not a great deal of revenue, at least on an initial transaction. However, ConsciousMedia.com is banking on building a long-term relationship with customers logging on to the site initially through a bookstore.

To date, the partnership program has been successful with individuals operating their own New Age-themed Web sites. But it has still been slow to catch on with booksellers. Jacobson believes he can bring booksellers around through education. ConsciousMedia.com will again this year offer a private workshop at INATS for bricks-and-mortar retailers looking to increase revenues from online sales.

"I would have thought it would be embraced wholeheartedly," Jacobson said of the program. "One of the things we've discovered is that it's a process to get these bookstores to trust us. And to realize that e-commerce is here to stay and they really do need to do something in this area. I think once they start looking into what we do and start browsing and shopping, they realize we're good people, we really do walk our talk. And they have an opportunity to make 10% -- which is a better margin than we're making."
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