Overstock Says No Shortage of Inventory in the World That's Ripe for Discounting

In so many ways, Overstock may be considered the original flash sales site.

Founded in 1999, the Salt Lake City company offers a wide variety of merchandise, ranging from bedding and home decor to appliances and sporting goods–at discounted prices.

But with a little bit of marketing polish, the practice has become a new, chic burgeoning industry.

A discount center conjures up imagines of large warehouses with cement floors full of unsold items. A flash sales deal, however, leads you believe you’ve found a pair of designer jeans for half off after sifting through dozens of boutiques on Rodeo Drive.

With that in mind, a micro industry of flash sales sites has been born.

The Gilt Groupe, HauteLook, One Kings Lane, Rue La La and Jackthreads all have their own niche, focusing on curating clothing for women or men, or furniture and home decor.

One big question is, is there enough inventory to sustain it all?

“It’s the dirty little secret in manufacturing,” said Overstock’s CEO Patrick Byrne. “The answer is that there is far more than you can possibly think. A company will say they don’t have overstock, but if you talk to the CFO, they will ask, ‘what can you truck away?’ The world is filled with excess inventory and is looking for channels to get rid of it.”

But just because the inventory is there, Byrne doesn’t believe they can all survive.

“We think the world only needs one pipeline, and we’ve built the one pipeline to do that,” he said. “The suppliers are better off with one big pipeline. If one pipeline emerges, where all the liquidation gets done, there will be price integrity in the rest of their marketplace. It’s our aspiration to be that one thick pipeline.”

On average, he said Overstock’s inventory is about 60 percent off the manufacturer’s recommended price. He said, general retail stores sell items for an average of 15 percent off and Walmart is even more heavily discounted at 30 to 40 percent off. Sites like Amazon.com, are normally somewhere in between, and flash sales generally claim discounts of 50 to 70 percent.

About a year ago, Overstock jumped on the bandwagon to launch Eziba.com, which focuses on selling a small number of items, ranging from furniture to jewelry, at heavily discounted prices via a daily email.

Eziba has the boutique look, with large photos of the products and colors bleeding off the page. That’s in sharp contrast to Overstock’s more straight-forward layout that stresses searching and browsing for items that are displayed in small thumbnail pictures.

Byrne said one of the big differences between items sold on Eziba and those sold on Overstock is the amount of inventory in stock.

Items on Eziba may have up to 5,000 on the virtual shelves, whereas products sold on Overstock have only a couple of hundred left.  Another difference is that there’s only a dozen or so items for sale on Eziba at any given time, while Overstock’s inventory spans 300,000 items (not including books and movies).

One of the big differences between Eziba and the competition is that it’s able to leverage Overstock’s infrastructure.

For instance, Eziba customers get the same customer service as Overstock and have the same flat-rate shipping of $2.99 an order.

So far, Byrne says the introduction of other sites has not affected the company’s business.

“It’s like swimming around in Lake Michigan and asking did you bump into each other. The world is so much bigger than anyone gets. It’s so enormous,” he said.

Overstock has been steadily growing over the years.

In 1999, the company recorded revenues of $1.8 million, and last year, revenues totaled $1.1 billion. Still, it’s a microcosm of the super-large e-commerce world. The company’s stock is trading at $14.31 a share for a market cap of $333.4 million. In contrast, Amazon’s is valued at around $75 billion, and eBay is worth $40 billion.

Generally, Byrne categorizes the company as a nice profitable company that has built a very solid foundation over the past few years.

He said the recent stability, compared to the start-up years, gives him the chance to experiment with new lines of business. ”We are very agile. We can develop new things really quickly and snap them into the platform we’ve built.”

In addition to Eziba, the company also runs Worldstock, a site that helps artisans from around the world sell their crafts online. Byrne made the recent decision to give all of its profits to a charity that’s focused on helping build classrooms in developing countries around the world.

It’s also recently launched Main Street Revolution, which helps small business around the U.S. sell their goods online, ranging from children’s clothing to specialty home-made cookies.

The company’s latest endeavor includes experimenting with a significant rebranding of the Web site.

In January, it introduced the domain name O.CO, which is a shortcut to its regular Web site. During an initial introductory period, customers who shop at O.CO will receive free shipping.

Byrne said the reason behind the name is to have a more recognizable brand across the 90 countries it operates in. While the domain name will change permanently internationally, the company is only experimenting with the name domestically.


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