A Web start-up of a different colour

The quest for a quality white shirt at a decent price led three high-school buddies to create Just Whites Shirts and Black Socks back in 1994.

In late 1997, the quest for greater revenue pushed the mail-order company to launch justwhiteshirts.com, and the business has never looked back. The Toronto firm, which recently introduced an expanded line of business and casual clothing, is now earning 43 per cent of its money off of Web sales on a projected total revenue of $5 million this year.

The business is built on a basic premise: “Reasonable men no longer pay over $85 for a cotton dress shirt.” And the company’s ad campaign, which features the founders wearing just white shirts and black socks, has also been successful. “Dropping the pants seems to help,” said Michael Sachter, the firm’s vice-president of marketing.

The company launched its e-com site three and a half years ago, and in that time it has learned a few lessons.

Keep it simple

The company’s market is time-starved executives who hate to shop, so simplicity and efficiency in Web design is important.

“It’s dead-simple and clean. We have just launched a new version of the site, which removes two clicks from the average sale,” Sachter said.

It is also a good idea to keep redesigns to a minimum, he added. While some elements of the site change at least every six months, wholesale revamps are rare. “We don’t just add gimmicks, because then customers have to relearn what you did.”

And where most companies want sticky sites – those at which surfers spend a lot of time – Sachter doubts that approach.

“The question is, is the site sticky or are people just stuck? They could be on the site for a long time but that doesn’t mean they’re having a great time.”

He is happy to see visitors get in, access what they want and then leave. “All of our customers appreciate the value of time and they all hate to shop. I want them to get in, choose to buy, be satisfied, and if I can make that happen in half the time, then I’m here to do that.”

Avoid one-basket options

Different buying channels are a good idea, Sachter said. While some customers purchase only from the Web site, the company still maintains its catalogue business and has recently opened a physical store in downtown Toronto.

“We have Web customers to whom we still send catalogues, because they can see the products in greater resolution than on the Web. And the outlet allows us to address customers who want to see and feel the clothes and then buy direct from us.

“It’s not that we used the Web and poof – we’re now growing at a massive rate. We took risks, we put ourselves out on the Web with a reasonable Web site for the times, we did a lot of learning, and we have never stood still. We’ve been willing to evolve multiple channels.”

Shipping is a balancing act

“Free shipping doesn’t necessarily drive purchases, although high shipping costs can push business away,” Sachter said.

The company has a $7.50 flat rate for delivery in Canada. “That fee is not a deterrent, and if the shipping is free, some studies show, customers just figure [that costs] are hidden in the cost of the product.

“As a promotion once in a while, free shipping can be a good idea, but if you do it too often it ceases to be a promotion. You are then training your customers to expect free shipping.”

Managing relationships

Justwhiteshirts.com is not watching its on-line customers too closely, but it would like to.

“We are currently not tracking movement through the site. We have information on individuals who have purchased products – you’ve told us what you’ve purchased and where to ship the product, for example. The next step for us is to look at the data and make more relevant offers for our customers. If you bought a dress shirt you might be interested in a tie, and we’d like to get to the point where – based on the colour of the shirt – we offer the most popular matching colours in other items,” Sachter said.

That could be done through a database lookup of preset suggestions, or, in the future, through some sort of computerized matching process. “We would like to be smart enough that the machine can make a couple of suggestions (for accompanying products).”

And some day the technology may even know what customers are thinking, Sachter said. “If you could think [what you wanted] in a man-machine interface and it would know what you’re looking for, people would like that. It doesn’t work that way now: we put in key words and we search.”

Justwhiteshirts.com also wants to take a closer look at shopping cart abandonment, a widespread industry phenomenon in which customers begin the purchase process but for some reason do not complete it. “If you’ve abandoned, especially in the checkout process, then we haven’t done our job of converting you (into a purchaser). We’ve had enough e-mail from customers who have been frustrated at different points in the process [that we can] address those bottlenecks.”