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Nurturing Natural: Online Retailer Abe's Market Blends Etsy and Whole Foods

This Web hub helps companies communicate their uniqueness and sell their goods.

This story appears in the June 2011 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

On the supermarket rack, FullBloom Baking Company's oatmeal cookies are laid out next to boxes of mass-produced baked goods. That could make it a bit tough for customers to get that the products are natural and organic and made in a sustainable factory, or that the company that makes them gives back to the community.

That was a big problem for 21-year-old San Francisco-based FullBloom when it decided to shift gears and sell its fresh and frozen all-natural baked goods directly to the public instead of supplying cafés and restaurants. But recently FullBloom found a solution for getting its marshmallow bars and feel-good story to the masses: Abe's Market, an online hub for natural products that focuses on telling the stories behind the they partner with.

"Abe's is reaching out to people who want to put good food in their bodies," says MaryAnn Pijar, FullBloom's VP. "That's our target market, and it made a lot of sense to seek them out. Our desire is to be available to anyone who enjoys our product and to get orders from around the country. We didn't have a solution for doing that. Abe's is our online solution."

The site launched publicly in April 2010 after a six-month soft opening. A blend of and Whole Foods Market, Abe's also features bits and pieces of Amazon, Groupon and Home Shopping Network. In 2008, Abe's founders--longtime friends Richard Demb, co-founder of Dale and Thomas Popcorn, and Jon Polin, former manager for several Fortune 500 companies--were searching for a friendlier, more personal way of doing online. Demb was reminded of the dozens of entrepreneurs he'd met at natural products shows while sourcing ingredients for his popcorn. They had wonderful products. They were passionate and told great stories. But they often got washed out to sea in the vast ocean of .

Abe's, the founding duo believes, gives those businesses a safe mooring and gives buyers and sellers a way to interact that's more meaningful than an anonymous click.

"Our concept is small businesses with great stories," Demb says. "Most sites don't tell you much about a company. We're taking the opposite tack. We tell stories consumers can relate to. Our sellers are experts at what they do and we want to give them a stage."

The site's 275 sellers--the founders expect that number to more than double this year--include a former Google executive who bakes cookies for babies, an M.D. who makes healthy crackers, a former private investigator who sells mustards and jams, and a stay-at-home mom who created nontoxic nail polish for little girls.

But unlike or Etsy, not just any company can hang a shingle at Abe's. The company carefully curates the site's sellers, inviting entrepreneurs they admire to join the business, and all prospective sellers must go through an application process. Not only do the products have to be natural and hold up to Abe's stringent quality standards, the entrepreneur also needs to have a story that resonates with consumers and a passion for telling that story.

"You need to have a certain amount of selection. That helps all the brands and improves the ," Demb says. "One soap is not enough. One hundred might be too much. But 20 or 30 brands might be the right amount. We're finding the right balance that gives the consumer choice and also lets each brand have its stage or space."

Abe's Way
Abe's Market doesn't rely on typical online tactics of super sales, bulk discounts or free shipping (though that is an occasional promotion). The business model is all about connecting with customers on a deeper level. Some tips from the Abe's guys:

Let your sellers do the talking. Consumers aren't as familiar with boutique brands and natural products, so they need a little education before committing to a purchase. But a label or website blurb doesn't connect as strongly as the voice of the person who just spent all day baking a batch of cookies. "That's why we want to give our sellers the stage," says Abe's co-founder Richard Demb. "She spent two years developing her cookies. She knows everything about cookies. She's the one who can tell the consumer why her cookie is great."

Play up the products' uniqueness. Many of the products on Abe's aren't available anywhere else, or are produced in limited quantities. Playing up that angle connects with a customer's desire to be different or cutting edge. "Consumers love the idea of discovery and finding a brand that is not widely known yet," explains Abe's co-founder Jon Polin. "And they like being the one to connect their family and friends to the product."

Be transparent. It's frustrating logging onto a site like Amazon and finding a note saying the item you want is out of stock, with no explanation and no way of knowing when or if the product will be available again. By letting sellers communicate directly with customers, Abe's can relay inside information, like a product that won't be available until the lavender blooms, or that the arrival of a new baby has delayed production of a popular hand cream. "Sellers can say, 'Hey, this is different and unique and won't be available all the time,'" Demb says, "'so grab it while you can.'" ­--J.D.

The advantages of setting up a stall at Abe's, however, makes the application process worth the trouble. Sellers get a highly visible platform and a simplified drop-shipping system. Many of them see sales jump as much as 20 and 30 percent once they hit the site. Abe's takes a 30 percent commission on each sale made through its site. Sellers are allowed to use other platforms as long as they don't undercut Abe's prices.

"Being on Abe's has absolutely driven business and earned repeat customers," says Erin Krug, a former science teacher from Hanover, Penn., who developed her Krug's Eco-Logic specialized soaps in 2008 after her two children developed extremely sensitive skin. "I love Abe's because they really go out there and promote their sellers."

Though it may be hard to imagine a touchy-feely business model that harnesses dog-biscuit chefs and hand-cream aficionados becoming an e-commerce powerhouse, Abe's estimates it will bring in more than $1.5 million in revenue this year. In February, the company closed a $3.4 million investment round led by Accel Partners and Index Ventures, which are betting the site will attract its fair share of the $26.6 billion organic and natural products market­--a sector that jumped 9 percent in the non-food category from 2008 to 2009, despite the recession.

Storytelling isn't the only reason the site pulls in customers. Each seller is allotted a clean, well-designed page that includes their story, their products, an interview and photos. If a customer opts to share a product with three friends by e-mailing them a link, they each get a 10 percent discount. And the latest feature, Abe's Live, gives sellers a chance to interact directly with customers and answer their questions during a streaming interview. Then the interview transcript is edited by the Abe's people and posted on the seller's page.

"This is just another stage for our sellers, and the type of interaction customers can't get in retail stores," Demb says. "It's the closest thing to a farmers market without going to the farmers market."

Abe's technology is a big part of what made Cindy DeVore a fan. After years working in political communications, DeVore moved to Broad Run, Va., and started making natural soaps infused with botanicals and ingredients sourced locally in Virginia's Piedmont region. Friends and family liked the soap so much that Cindy started Valley Green Naturals in 2009. She started selling her products on her website and other platforms, but it was difficult.

"It can be really tough to get to the top of a Google search without spending lots of money," DeVore says. Joining Abe's, though, has given her the techno-firepower to market her business, and she now estimates 30 percent of her sales come through the site.

"One thing that makes a small company like ours stand out is how we present our products," she says. "Things are hand-blended and carefully prepared in small batches. The fact that we're able to present that on Abe's is fantastic. There's nothing out there like that."

For Jon Polin, Abe's has shown him a side of business he never experienced while working for bigger corporations.

"I feel good about every piece of this business," he says. "We work with great people. It's fun. And that makes me feel great about what we're doing."

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