Gift cards have become the modern-day fruitcake: They’re the go-to last minute present but they’re unsexy and deeply impersonal. And they’re unattractive. However, gift cards have one big advantage over those blasted fruitcakes: Flexibility. Recipients can use them to buy whatever they want from the retailer behind the card.
Last year, gift-giving site Wantful launched, which neatly combines flexibility of choice with fantastic aesthetics. Here’s how it works: You browse through the site and select 12 potential gifts (prices range from $30 to $500) from its well-curated inventory for your intended. Wantful then takes your list of items, produces a gorgeous booklet that showcases them, wraps it in stylish origami paper, and sends it to your loved one in the mail. The recipient peruses this personal mini-catalog, selects his present and informs Wantful, which sends the gift to him directly. It’s a unique experience all around—and such a brilliant idea you can’t believe it took this long for someone to think of it. DuJour spoke to Wantful’s CEO and founder John Poisson about how the idea was born, why gift cards aren’t really worth giving, and what to expect from the site this holiday season.
How did you originally come up with the idea for Wantful?
When I thought of it, I was taking some time off and travelling around the world. I needed to buy a wedding gift for some friends, and I was in Paris, one of the greatest shopping cities in the world. But I couldn’t find what I felt was the perfect gift, and I thought that was kind of a shame. Here I was, someone who had all the time in the world to shop in Paris or in London or any other city, and I still couldn’t find anything to get. That was when I realized there was something missing in the retail market, particularly in the gift-shopping category. It was that little seed of a thought that eventually turned into Wantful.
What are some of your best-selling items? Have there been any duds?
Sales are pretty evenly distributed across items. One of the interesting things about our model is that if you look at mainstream retailers, they pick certain products to sell and they buy large quantities of them. Our world is a lot more specialized—we focus on products that you don’t typically find in those retailers. The result is that we don’t have runaway hits, but we do have broad distribution across many different products because they are more specialized. It just goes to show you that people want things that are more personal and more unique. However, there are categories that do well for us: jewelry, home décor, personal accessories and fashion accessories. Those are all really strong areas.
Regarding duds, there are very few items that we consider bad sellers. We have some products that are a bit more indulgent or a bit of a crazy idea that won’t necessarily sell well, but they’re still interesting enough to include in a booklet. Like we have a $500 collection of chocolate. A lot of people include that in a gift for someone who loves chocolate, even if they know they probably won’t choose it. But there’s something about imagining yourself sitting on a monstrous pile of chocolate that adds a lot of value to the gift. We don’t necessarily sell a lot of that item, but having it in the collection adds a lot to the experience for the giver and for the recipient.
What was the go-to gift last holiday season? What do you think it will be this season?
Last year, because we were such a new service, we had an assortment of favorites. This year we’ve just come back from a buying trip to Paris and Milan, so we’ve found a lot of interesting jewelry and home décor products that aren’t available in the U.S. except through Wantful. I think those are going to do very well. Wantful is a retailer, and we work directly with designers and producers to offer their products through our site. It’s a proper retail business, and the economics are much more interesting than if we were a step removed from the supply chain. Our job is to find great products directly from the people that make them and to bring them to our customers. We won’t have a go-to gift per se, because everything really is one-of-a-kind.
How much do most people spend?
Our gifts go from $30 to $500, and we’ve seen a lot of people buying gifts in the $50 to $75 range. However, we do have a lot of sales in the $200 and $500 categories—people who visit Wantful are buying both casual, everyday gifts and also really important or indulgent gifts.
How much is your business influenced by Cyber Monday?
I think we’ll definitely see a spike, and we’re launching a bunch of new things on the site just in time for CyberMonday, including new functionality. But I do think our customer tends to not be so driven by those dates and deadlines. They know they can sit down at Wantful and curate all of their holiday gifts in an hour, so it’s less of the industry-generated hysteria or focus and one day. We are much more calm and rational in our world.
How does Wantful work with customers looking for something to give last minute?
You can create a gift book for someone and have it FedExed as late as December 23. Even on Christmas Day, you can still create a book on Wantful and have it delivered to them via email. Last year, we did a surprising amount of business on Christmas morning, and we expect that to be the case this year.
How are you planning to grow Wantful? Any new ideas or in-house labels you will be rolling out in the next few months?
We haven’t developed our own products yet, but I’m sure we will at some point. Right now we’re just focused on the gift-giving service, but we’ve also just launched an iPad app which is a complement to the gift-giving service but it also helps you discover new products on the site for yourself. We’ve also published an in-house magazine that is custom-printed for our top customers.
Give three words to describe your average customer.
Stylish, thoughtful and forward-thinking
Wantful is a new spin on the gift card. Was it your intention to take something so generic and give it a more personal and chic aesthetic?
We consider ourselves to be the antidote of the gift card, because the gift card is never something that anyone feels good about giving or getting. We think of ourselves as a better solution to a gift card; we’re a service that helps you create something beautiful and thoughtful and meaningful and fun to use. There’s something really fun [for the recipient] about having the difficult choice of picking one item from this book of things you see, and we really wanted the book to feel like a present in terms of its look and feel. We wanted this experience to have an element of surprise, and we wanted the book to feel beautiful, to catch your attention and to open up in a big dramatic way. We want the whole experience to be special, not just the present itself.
What was the worst gift card you’ve ever received?
I got a gift card for Starbucks for a surprisingly large amount. It was nice, but I don’t drink coffee from Starbucks unless I happen to be near one. It was something like a $75 gift card for coffee, and I thought that that was so not an interesting use of that person’s money. It’s like paying my toll every day on the bridge for a month—it just seems like a strange gesture.
How often do you change the products you offer on the site? Is it difficult because you work with such specialized retailers?
We are constantly out buying, and we keep adding products on an ongoing basis. Every week, we have new samples sent in and we start each week off at a big table with the staff reviewing them and deciding if they’ll make it onto Wantful. If we like them, we photograph them and put them up on the site immediately. It’s a much different cycle than normal retail. There, you have to make a big buy every season and it takes months for things to get on the floor or on the website and what you don’t sell you have to discount and liquidate or sell on a flash sale site. It’s a very different model, because we’ve got a constant influx of product that you haven’t already seen anywhere else. Because of the way we’re structured, the economics of our business are really strong. Products are still coming live on Wantful the week before Christmas, because our people are still shopping and finding great stuff.
Do you have any particular favorite gifts on the site right now?
There are a few coming that will be live just in time for Christmas that I’m really loving. One is a set of handmade glass bead bracelets (shown below) from this woman in the South of France who hasn’t sold in the U.S. before, and they are just absolutely stunning. We’ve also got these brass bell jars. They’re hand-blown Italian bell jars (also shown below) that have these sort of preposterous shapes that look a little like aliens but have a whimsical and modern style. And then there are these beautiful Japanese rice paper and wood lamps from a woman named Celine Wright in Paris.
Tell me about the evolution of your career. How did you move from the social media sphere to e-commerce, and why did you decide to make the move? Do you believe that it is it all one component now as things get more and more personal online?
I’m kind of a serial entrepreneur. This is my fourth business, and my first two were visual effects companies so it’s two totally different industries. I’ve never worked in retail, but it’s something I’ve been passionate about my whole life. Like I said, I was living in Europe and a big part of what I was doing was looking at beautiful, well-designed products and great retail experiences that I found intriguing. I guess it was inevitable that I would find myself building a retail brand at some point. The type of products we carry, the user experience, the gift-giving piece—those are just all things that I’ve been obsessed with throughout my life. Social media and e-commerce are related, but I’m not a huge fan of social shopping as a business. I think there’s a lot of talk and buzz around it, but we’re not as interested in a social media meets e-commerce play as we are building a really powerful retail brand that people trust and love.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
The first is—and this is the advice that I give everyone whom I talk to that’s in this category—you haven’t done it until you’ve gotten started, so just jump off the cliff and start building. A lot of people ruminate on an idea for years and years, and they never pull the trigger. They never take that first step, and the first step is the one that really evolves.
The second piece of advice is really obvious, too. You want to build the best possible team you can find. You can’t do anything by yourself and with a great team, like the one we have, we’re able to do anything and everything we set out to do.
Scroll down to see samples of the Wantful booklets, plus some of Poisson’s picks for the best items available now.
Glass domes by Secondome, $75-$500
Cathy Ripert Bracelets, $500 each
All photos courtesy of Wantful