Triathlete Laura Stanford, 32, knows how hard it is to find good exercise clothes. "Either the stuff is dowdy, or the service is terrible," she says. "You go into a sports store, and the gearhead dude working on the bikes in the back just doesn't understand your needs." Formerly a paralegal in a busy Silicon Valley law firm, Stanford always looked to her workouts for solace from her high-stress job. When she decided to quit the firm to start an e-commerce Web site, selling exercise apparel was a natural choice. All she had to do was go to a few trade shows, set up a hot site, take in the orders and ship them out. Simple, right?
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Stanford recalls of her online sports apparel boutique, Pro Se Sports (www.pro-se-sports.com), which launched in 1998. "If I could do it again, I probably wouldn't go into a business that involves inventory or fulfillment."
Her main difficulties: trying to cope with long lead times from manufacturers and finding a fulfillment system that could accommodate the needs of her customers. Currently, all Pro Se's fulfillment operations are handled in-house by six staffers who ship products via UPS from the company's small warehouse in San Francisco. To cope with increasing sales, Stanford has looked into outsourcing her fulfillment operations, but she's run into some obstacles. Because women's exercise apparel is a fairly new industry, there are few choices for partnering with fulfillment houses. Those that come close charge about $8 per package, a cost that Pro Se Sports is not yet prepared to absorb. "It's prohibitively expensive right now," says Stanford, "and it doesn't appear that the groups have the kind of customer care we're interested in providing."