Firebox.com is a dot.com-crash survivor. Founded in 1998 in a parental attic, it became profitable in 2001 and latest financial results are expected to show an £8.5m turnover from almost 200,000 active customers. This year, it will launch formally in the US. Its business is selling some 600 lines of gadgets, games, gifts and other cool accessories - 'boys' toys' to some, although 37% of customers are women and most orders come from outside the 18-34 age group. Offering a unique range of products and bringing items to market before the high street and online competitors are part of Firebox's style, contributing to its brand reputation and customer loyalty. As well as scouring worldwide shows for the next big thing, it gives manufacturers product advice and feedback.
Although primarily an online retailer, the firm prints five million catalogues a year, and orders can be posted or phoned in. Catalogues drive traffic to Firebox.com by carrying varying money-off codes whose value is only revealed by going online.
But being a virtual shop means that customers can't touch or test products before purchase. Firebox provides detailed descriptions, and website customers can post product reviews (negative as well as positive) and digital pictures and videos of themselves using purchases. This online feedback provides customers with perhaps more information than they'd get in a bricks-and-mortar store; it also gives them confidence in the quality of the merchandise as well as managing their expectations - all of which reduces product returns. 'If someone smiles when they read a review but doesn't buy, we've still done a good job,' says MD Chris Robinson. Customers can post questions about products for the customer service team to answer. Often, another customer steps in with the reply.
In addition to sponsoring its own online community, Firebox monitors other internet forums and, where appropriate, responds to customer comments. The firm runs an e-mail newsletter, but rather than sending endless offers, it issues one mail a fortnight.
Firebox claims to dispatch 80% of orders within 24 hours (weekends included), although it has to wrestle with a 1,000% seasonal spike in business volumes in the run-up to Christmas through to Valentine's Day. To meet this challenge it hires 80 temps to bolster Firebox's 40 full-timers. There are more mispicks in this high season (210 out of last year year's total of 233) but the error rate is low in the context of 145,000 consignments (240,000 for the year). The temps, by the way, provide a good source of full-time recruits.
Firebox hasn't yet been able to commit to specific time-slots for delivery, offering instead a standard two to three days, with upgrades to 'next day a.m.'. But customers receive free Firebox sweets with their orders, a thankyou that gives them something to share with family or work colleagues - a good marketing ploy, like the firm's distinctive orange boxes. Returns are made as hassle-free as possible, with a no-quibble 30-day guarantee on unwanted goods, and a freepost address or courier pick-up for faulty items, with refunds or replacements within 24 hours.
Staff are consulted on proposed new merchandise at a weekly meeting. Prospective products can be scrapped if employees think they are naff or inappropriate - an edible G-string made of sweets was vetoed despite an estimated £50,000 profit potential.
Maintaining a lead with its catalogue is always a challenge. With inventors approaching Firebox with ideas, Robinson would like it to become a development hub through which Firebox matches inventors with manufacturers in return for some sort of exclusivity on distribution.
Firebox expresses its ethos as: 'We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.' Although old in online retailing terms, this dynamic little business is far from becoming boring.