CoffeeTable Aims to Reinvent Catalog Shopping for the iPad Era

4/20/12Follow @wroush

When e-commerce startup CoffeeTable was brand new, the company occupied a table at San Francisco’s Dogpatch Labs, right across from another startup called Burbn. The week Burbn launched its iPhone app, CoffeeTable’s lead engineer “started to see that it was going to take off, and decided to switch over and join them,” says Ben Choi, CoffeeTable’s CEO. It was a prescient decision: Burbn was about to rename itself Instagram and become one of this decade’s hottest startups.

But Choi doesn’t begrudge the engineer his recent Facebook windfall, and he doesn’t wish he’d gone along for the ride. In fact, he thinks CoffeeTable may have an even bigger opportunity in front of it: the chance to reinvent the catalog shopping business.

Wait, you say: catalogs? What’s a tech startup doing messing around in a market that hasn’t been cutting-edge since, oh, 1888, when Richard Sears introduced his first compendium of farm equipment?

One word: iPad. CoffeeTable is all about letting people browse their favorite catalogs on their Apple tablets. Open the free CoffeeTable app, and you can flip through the latest catalogs from 82 brands, from Cheryl’s Cookies (featuring scrumptious-looking frosted shortbread cookies) to Scrubs & Beyond (for the nurse or doctor who wants that Grey’s Anatomy look). If you find an item you like, you can order it straight from the app.

A page from CB2's spring catalog on CoffeeTable. The pink hare can be yours for just $69.95 plus shipping.

None of that is unprecedented or unique. The Google Catalogs iPad app works much the same way, and the catalogs section of the iTunes App Store lists more than 600 apps overall. But after just a year and a half in operation, CoffeeTable has already developed deep ties to the catalog marketing industry—and has intriguing plans to inject new life into the old medium. Choi, a former partner at venture firm Maveron, predicts the iPad will be “the platform for the next revolution in e-commerce.” So I visited recently to find out more about what the company is up to.

Now, I should admit up front that I’m not a big catalog fan. I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to get companies to stop sending me the blasted things in the mail. But then, I’m a guy, and I don’t particularly enjoy shopping. It turns out that most American still love their quarterly Sharper Image, Crate & Barrel, J. Crew, and Lands’ End catalogs. In fact, if you believe the American Catalog Mailers Association, catalogs drive $270 billion in retail purchases every year. That’s more than three times the amount consumers spend on e-commerce purchases. “Catalogs seem old and staid and not very innovative, and yet they are the most effective marketing platform retailers have,” says Choi.

Neither Choi nor CoffeeTable’s founder Chris Friedland started out as catalog people, either. Choi explains the story this way: Friedland, who’s also founder and CEO of Chico, CA-based Build.com, started to notice in mid-2010 that more and more people were visiting the home improvement site from their iPads. Not only that, but iPad users were spending more money on the site, and returning more frequently. It didn’t seem that iPad owners were more affluent than people browsing from their desktops or laptops—the conclusion Friedland drew was that there was actually something more engaging about the experience of shopping on a tablet.

The CoffeeTable team outside their Townsend Street office in San Francisco. CEO Ben Choi is at far left.

That got him thinking about what e-commerce companies could do to take even better advantage of the iPad’s great visuals and its touch-based interface. Friedland soon realized that he might need to rewind history a bit, to the days before e-commerce. There’s a huge convenience factor to shopping online, but the fact is that e-commerce is more about product search than product discovery. If you’re looking for inspiration for your kitchen renovation project, you don’t browse page after page of faucets at Amazon.com. That’s what catalogs are for. And that’s how CoffeeTable was born.

“Catalogs provide a great content experience,” says Choi. “The mindset is, ‘I am discovering stuff I didn’t know about. I’m not shopping on price or features, I just want ideas.’ That is what e-commerce hasn’t done well.” But if you could marry the convenience of traditional e-commerce with the usability ofthe iPad, you might have something big. “Because of this platform and the unique touch interface, there is the opportunity to build the next big e-commerce company based around discovery,” Choi says.

Choi himself came into the picture in late 2010. He says he first got to know Friedland after using Build.com to plan his own home remodeling project. “I called him up and said, ‘I love what you have done and I would love to get involved in your next project.’” By “get involved,” Choi really meant “invest,” since his job at Maveron was to find promising new startups. But as the relationship developed, it turned out Friedland didn’t want Maveron’s money—he wanted … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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