In the cutthroat world of design, retailers are only as good as the brands they sell. Which is why earlier this summer Eames Demetrios, the grandson of arguably the most famous couple in industrial design history—Charles and Ray Eames—found himself at an exclusive dinner hosted by Fab.com, the design flash sale site trying to recast itself as the world’s largest design store. The folks at Fab hoped that while mingling with fellow design royalty over speck and truffle-wrapped asparagus, the preserver of the Eames legacy might just decide to sell the iconic modern furniture on its ecommerce site. "I think they are finding a new way to have a conversation with the public that offers an intuitive sense of design," Demetrios told me that evening.
For Fab, selling products like Eames chairs might not be critical for its bottom line, but it is for its street cred in the design community. "It's a good thing for the emerging designers to be able to say ‘I was chosen in Fab's assortment along with Iittala and Vitra.’ It elevates their brands," explains Fab’s cofounder and chief design officer, Bradford Shellhammer. "And we want to have things that people instantly recognize as design icons in the fold with the newer stuff." In other words, it makes Fab’s network of 20,000 makers selling through the store seem more MoMa than Etsy (or dare some say: Spencer’s).
But wooing top-shelf design brands has been more hustle than cakewalk for Fab. "No one wanted to talk to us," says Jae Hah, who joined Fab in January 2012, six months into Fab’s existence, referring to the biggest names in everyday design. "They thought we were just one of 20 bazillion other flash sites." Shellhammer, a former Design Within Reach salesperson, poached his former co-worker Hah as Fab’s VP of global strategic accounts, who at the time was a DWR regional director. "She’s the only person who was a better salesperson than me," Shellhammer says of Hah. "She's a true hustler."
Hah began currying favor with big brands by systematically trying to crack a narrow but rich sector of design: kitchen and tabletop. Her first target was Nespresso, a brand Shellhammer adored but one that keeps tight control over customer experience in its own retail environments. "They wouldn't even give us the time of day," recalls Hah. "The bigger the company, the harder the sell, the more entrenched they are with other partners and the more layers they have." She spent a year working to break through, and finally got someone from the company to respond to her via a LinkedIn note, which turned into a meeting, which turned into a second meeting, which turned into Nespresso finally taking a leap of faith with Fab. "A brand is emotional shorthand to people. When you hear it, it conveys 10 feelings in just one word because customers have this cumulative experience with that brand," says Hah. "So just through the association, it's shorthand to say Nespresso trusts their brand to sell with Fab." In the self-reinforcing world of elite brands, landing Nespresso meant others would soon follow, including Bodum, Le Creuset, Global Knives, and Oxo. "Brands are very much worried about who's sitting on the shelf next to them," says Shellhammer.
But not all brands have been convinced Fab isn’t just another flash discounter dragging its reputation down. Publicly, some reps from design brands, such Paolo Cravedi, Alessi’s U.S. head of sales, treated Fab like a mistress. "He would avoid me at parties because he knew I'd want to talk to him," says Hah of Cravedi. Alessi, a nearly 100-year-old Italian company that collaborates with over 200 designers and architects, makes inventive home products that are "like being able to own a Renzo Piano building in your living room," describes Hah. Alessi had done a few flash sales with Fab early on but decided to no longer sell through the site. "They had this perception that we were liquidators, that we were a sort of bottom feeders," says Hah.
To seduce them back, Hah worked her network. She knew that Cravedi was friendly with the head of sales at Kartell, a high-design furniture company that after much convincing was finally working with Fab. She begged her Kartell contact to get her just one lunch with Cravedi, an ex-Kartell managing director. She got the lunch. Over a steak, Hah did her best to convince Alessi—which sold primarily through boutiques, select high-end department stores, and Amazon—that Fab was its best shot to appeal to a younger, design-oriented consumer. According to Fab, 60% of its customers are under 35 and some 35% of its sales traffic comes through mobile.
The hard sell worked. "Sometimes the hardest conversations are when someone has a belief and you have to dismantle that belief, and then rebuild the current reality," says Hah, who says by the time she and Cravedi finished lunch "we were hugging, we were kissing, we're best friends." Alessi is now selling multiple products on Fab at full price, like its Michael Graves pepper mill and Marcel Wanders watch. Says the newly converted Cravedi: "I think it’s a very compelling thing now to have a big brand side by side next to young designers."
[Writer's Note: I met with Cravedi after the story came out and he disagreed with Hah's perception of why Alessi wouldn't work with Fab. "Alessi never perceived Fab.com as liquidators — moreover, we certainly wouldn't conceive of ever using a word like 'bottom feeders.' We simply stopped doing flash sale events because we don't have a warehouse in the USA and we only exceptionally have overstock situations to deal with; these logistical factors made it difficult to have ongoing sales events with Fab.com," says Cravedi, who also felt Fab was taking a divergent merchandising direction, selling products like tech gadgets. "After this concern was addressed by their team in a series of meetings and with the new focus and direction on full priced merchandise, Alessi and Fab.com decided jointly to partner up in a meaningful way."]
[Image Courtesy of Racked | Photo by Porter Hovey]