In Wake of Dot-com Bust, Blueport Commerce Makes Furniture.com Work

[Updated at 3:10 with a correction to revenue numbers provided.] Carl Prindle’s mission during the dot-com boom was to disrupt furniture companies. Now, he’s trying to help them sell their goods online.

As the CEO of Boston-based Blueport Commerce, Prindle has launched an e-commerce software company and revived the Furniture.com website by melding e-commerce with brick-and-mortar retail. With the wisdom of experience, he and many other e-commerce pros are seeing that online and offline work well together—at least for certain product categories.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Prindle was an executive at Furniture.com, a classic dot-com company that sold sofas and the like directly to consumers. The company built out the software, the inventory, and the delivery systems to ship goods, bypassing the traditional supply chain. It filed to go public, reflecting the euphoria around digital disruption at the time.

But there are a few problems with trying to be the “Amazon of furniture,” which conspired to eventually sink Furniture.com version 1.0. First, it’s very difficult to build a brand online, even with some $130 million in venture funding. And secondly, many people want to actually sit on that easy chair before they put it in their living room. Stores are good for that.

After the company was liquidated, Prindle was able to buy the Furniture.com address and start  a new business in the same industry. What he eventually came around to is a sales and fulfillment system tailored specifically to furniture—an industry that moves tens of billions of dollars worth of goods every year, Prindle says. That software service, sold under the Blueport Commerce name, is targeted at regional retail companies, which can use it as part of their public websites.

Furniture.com, meanwhile, is focused at people who want to shop multiple store brands at once and are comfortable buying a couch sight-unseen. Sales are fulfilled through local retailers.

Earlier this month, fellow Boston e-commerce company Wayfair launched a successful IPO on the strength of its growth selling home goods online, including some furniture. There’s also Cambridge, MA-based CustomMade, which connects consumers to people who can make furniture, jewelry, and several other products. So does this mean that specialized e-commerce companies are on the rise?

If there’s a trend, it’s simply that a growing population of consumers feels comfortable buying stuff online and retailers have no choice but to develop more sophisticated tools, Prindle says. “In a lot of product categories, stores don’t matter a whit,” he says. “And what Wayfair has shown retailers is that clearly there’s a consumer out there that they’re not reaching and they need better tools.”

The Blueport software lets people shop and check for product availability online. Then, using a QR code, they can find the merchandise in the store and order from a tablet. Prindle compares the service to OpenTable, which works through restaurants to make reservations and uses technology to make the physical experience of going to a restaurant more modern and convenient. For the retailers themselves, the software provides a specialized sales application that connects to back-office systems used in that industry.

Is Blueport in danger of being crushed by Amazon, as was the worry for many companies back in the dot-com bubble? Prindle says his biggest competitor is e-commerce systems from the likes of SAP and Oracle, rather than Amazon, which is focused on selling other types of products.

Blueport has seen its sales through its software balloon from about $12 million two years ago to over $100 million now, and it has signed on eight large regional furniture retailers in the U.S. and Canada as customers. Because it’s selling subscriptions of enterprise-grade software, the deals it signs are for several years. That should give the company the means to reach more retailers and build out a version of its software for smaller furniture sellers.

Obviously, many dot-com companies had unrealistic expectations about how quickly technology would disrupt many industries. But mobile computing—and a generation of digital natives—continues to breath life into e-commerce and make those dot-com-era predictions finally come true.

“Many retailers understand they have to change and what they were terrified about in the late 1990s is actually happening now,” Prindle says.

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