CSN Stores, Amid Rebranding and Financing Rumors, Looks to Become “Amazon for the Home”

4/18/11Follow @gthuang

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huge retailers (and household names) like Walmart, Target, JCPenney, Macy’s, and Sears, as well as Amazon and large furniture stores. It will also be interesting to watch the rise of “mass customization” companies that let consumers design and personalize their own products—but how well these companies will compete with big retailers, especially in home wares, remains to be seen.

For now, Conine and Shah are focused on the challenges of continuing the company’s growth and promoting its culture. CSN (the name comes from the founders’ initials) is actually the duo’s third venture together since they were engineering classmates at Cornell University in the early-to-mid ‘90s. The firm has grown to the point where the founders now spend about half their time on recruiting.

“We’re looking for the same kind of people Google and Amazon are looking for,” says Conine. He sounds a lot like an engineer when he talks about his top criteria for hires: first would be “aptitude,” followed by being “more excited about the problem they’re solving than the technology they’re using,” taking criticism well, being constructive on a team and willing to make mistakes, and inspiring their peers. “Companies that succeed are ones that worry about getting the best people in and empower them to do their best,” Shah adds.

Besides people, of course, another big emphasis for CSN is its technology. Without getting too geeky here, what’s notable is that the company has built its own software systems to handle everything from enterprise resource planning to crunching vast amounts of customer data to doing product search and order management—all from the ground up. “We look at building systems to run our business,” Conine says.

And the key to CSN’s systems is automation. Its engineering team of 75 people runs software that integrates with some 5,000 brands and suppliers across 3 million products. When an order comes in, CSN’s software automatically checks whether the item is in stock using a reservation system plus statistics to account for how fast those items are selling that day—which is easier said than done, especially at high volumes. The end result, in almost all cases, is that UPS or FedEx delivers the item to the customer’s door without a hitch. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, though: on a recent visit to CSN’s office, I watched developers monitoring three big screens on the wall, showing customers’ click-stream data, Web traffic spikes, and errors in the system.

That kind of real-time monitoring exemplifies the future of e-commerce, and … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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