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The World of Woot

From cleaning robots to screaming monkeys and soiled “wine diapers,” SLM peeks inside a fast-moving company that’s online—and offbeat.

Illustration by Sam Washburn

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a postscript (at bottom) since it was originally sent to press.

In a bustling office overlooking the northern end of the Grand Boulevard commercial district, copywriters churn out descriptions for laptops, lawn mowers, and barbecue skewers. Each day, at the stroke of midnight, the company makes a new product available, sending a ripple of excitement across the country. The low—sometimes ridiculously low—prices are key to how quickly the items sell. But here’s the catch: Each product is available for one day only.

Welcome to the world of Woot.

In recent weeks, one could have used Woot to find a bargain-priced electric guitar ($59.99), a children’s playhouse ($49.99), or a pair of USB-powered flashing police lights ($4.99). Luke Duff, who oversees a team of programmers, says he sometimes has to remind his employees, “We are not a technology company. We sell crap on the Internet.”

Lawn mowers and laptops, robots that clean and toy monkeys that scream…this fantastical procession of products ships from Carrolton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that’s home to 150 Woot workers. But most of the fun, creative stuff happens here in St. Louis, at Woot Workshop, a subsidiary that employs 14.

The company launched in 2004, and the St. Louis office followed a year later. At its helm is Dave Rutledge, brother of Woot founder Matt Rutledge. When he set up Woot Workshop, Dave recruited three high-school friends to help; five years later, those four remain at the company’s core.

Rutledge admits that being a dot-com outside of California has its disadvantages: Woot’s staff isn’t “going to the same bars as the people at Google and Yahoo,” he says. He recalls a Google employee asking him to drop by the online behemoth’s offices. Just one problem: Google’s based in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, Rutledge says he’s confident that he has the best employees available locally, whereas competition elsewhere often leads the most talented people to hop from one company to the next.

“It is pretty common to find someone who’s a huge fan,” says Rutledge, “but is shocked that there is a local connection.”

Clint Phillips, a local computer repairman from Kirkwood, says he got hooked on Woot about four years ago. He frequently stays up until midnight to see the new item, and Woot’s often the first website he checks in the morning. Always on the lookout for deals on computers and other tech items, Phillips says he used to check Woot’s prices against others on the Web, but has since accepted that the site consistently offers the lowest prices. He’s forever forwarding suggestions to friends and has lost count of how many people he’s turned on to Woot.

The company’s standout quality is its goofiness, its seeming inability to take anything seriously. (That humor is part of the brand, of course, and brand loyalty underpins a multimillion-dollar business model; in 2008, the company generated $164 million.) A typical product description is more comedy skit than conventional sales literature. The descriptions have parodied scam letters from Nigeria, Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost stories, and TV show The Office. Woot’s formula is to give a utilitarian product a personality and bury the important information —technical specs, size, color—at the end. Then stand back, and let word of mouth take care of the rest.

Jason Toon, who heads a team of five copywriters, says Woot embraces a kind of “anticopywriting” that appeals to people who object to how products are traditionally sold. During a recent visit to Woot’s local office, debate raged over how to market the “Wine Diaper.” Woot’s employees were happy to sell the product—designed to wrap around a wine bottle to protect it during travel, and to absorb spills if necessary—but the bizarre name led to some debate. The word “diaper” described its function quite nicely, some said; others felt the word brought bodily functions to mind.

When the product was posted in late April, the description leaned more toward cutesy satire than full-blooded ridicule: “Congratulations on your new bouncing baby bottle! Here are a few things new wine-parents need to know about properly diapering your precious little one… If you’re new to Wine Diapering, you may want to practice on a bottle of the cheap stuff first. All wine is precious, but not equally precious… Do not be alarmed if, on removing the Wine Diaper, you discover that your wine is a reddish color. This is not a rash—it’s perfectly normal unless your bottle contains white wine. In that case, something freaky is going on and you should definitely be alarmed…”

(Similarly, in October 2009, a “cartbag”—a piece of golfing equipment—for sale on the site inspired a riff about how the word “cartbag” would be an excellent insult.)

The product descriptions are sometimes breathtaking in their chutzpah. One day last April, the company offered the “world’s crappiest projector.” At $59.99, it was far cheaper than anything else on the market. The projector worked, but produced a horrendously fuzzy image—perhaps good enough for certain purposes, the company suggested. Woot sold 839 of the projectors in a single day. “Anything is a great deal at some price,” says Rutledge.

But even if Woot didn’t discredit a shoddy product, its followers would. The company hosts a lively online forum where products are heartily recommended or hung out to dry before most people have sipped their morning coffee. The products are posted at midnight Central Time, and it’s not uncommon to see a devoted Woot follower post a link to an online review a minute later.

Woot’s sensibility appeals to some and alienates others. Customers are referred to as “suckers”; the last customer to buy a product is listed as “to blame for sellout.” While such references break every rule of customer relations, the humor is carefully circumscribed. In one sense, it’s anything goes—but as Toon puts it, nothing on the site is smuttier than a PG-13 movie.

Every few months, Woot goes into “Woot-Off mode,” when the frenzied buying steps up a gear. Products are sold in small quantities until they’re gone, and another item is placed on the sales block. The number of Woot-Off items and quantity of each item are never announced. Even during a clearance sale, Woot’s most sacrosanct rule still applies: Only one item can be sold at a time.

“The entire concept of a Woot-Off is based on impulse buying,” says Anthony Ferrara, an avid Woot follower from New Jersey. “But the really interesting part for me is that people will purchase almost anything just to see the next item—it doesn’t matter if it’s a 99-cent TV remote control or a $1,000 HDTV.”

During Woot-Offs, the site can attract as much as 20 times the normal amount of traffic. In the early days, the events were rife with logistical problems as customer interest waxed and waned in unpredictable patterns. The midnight changeover from one product to the next was a nightmare for Woot’s head IT man, Luke Duff; at one point, it was normal for him to respond to three or four midnight crises a week. The small company bought servers to cope with its increasing popularity—until Woot discovered “cloud computing,” which allows it to rent server space on the fly, eliminating human guesswork.

For those selling the products, Woot-Offs are still high-pressure days. But relatively speaking, “We’re in a calm spot,” says Rutledge, “the eye of the storm, you might say, watching the chaos.”

So what’s next for the company?

For Woot to maintain its edge, the company must take advantage of current technologies. In May 2007, Woot became the first retailer to use Twitter to keep customers on top of sales. Rutledge—whose handle is simply an underscore, a telling sign of how early he caught on to the trend—says Twitter is ideal for sending condensed sales pitches to followers. Woot tried a number of companies that were experimenting with micro messaging, he notes, but Twitter is the one that took off.

Earlier this year, Woot also launched a partnership with Blippy, a website aimed at those compelled to share too much information, allowing users to publish a log of purchases online. Woot is also experimenting with online scavenger hunts coordinated through Facebook.

The company’s general strategy, however, remains the same: Source products, and then come up with creative ways to market them to more and more suckers.
 


Postscript from the Author: As the print version of St. Louis Magazine went to press in late June, we learned that Woot, the feisty little company with roots in St. Louis and Dallas, had been acquired by Amazon. Officially the company was saying nothing would change from an operational point of view, but subsequent enquiries uncovered a big change: While the company’s 150 Dallas employees were staying put, the 14 people employed by St. Louis were being moved to Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered, effective at the end of July. The Dallas operation concentrates on the sourcing and distribution of Woot’s products; the St. Louis team is responsible for the Web site, the main way in which customers interact with the company.

Dave Rutledge, head of the St. Louis-based subsidiary Woot Workshop, said the move has been greeted with mixed emotions by all involved. It will be a major upheaval: Every Woot Workshop employee has lived in St. Louis for his or her whole life, with the exception of years away at college.

But, on the other hand, “if you wanted to try a new city,” Rutledge says, you could do a lot worse than being relocated “along with a bunch of friends to Seattle.”

Yes, the whole team — all 14 of them plus families — is moving en masse. Rutledge notes that the St. Louis office has an exemplary record of retention over the past eight years. No one has ever left, he claims, although dark stories circulate in the Woot Workshop office of “the failed internship.”

Rutledge says the most immediate advantage of being under Amazon’s auspices is that it’ll offer Woot greater expertise on how to run a high-traffic commercial Web site. Additionally, there will be greater cash reserves — although Woot has produced healthy profits for the last few years, being part of a larger entity means fewer concerns about the month-to-month cashflow.

Rutledge says he feels comfortable with Amazon knowing that it has honored previous commitments to be hands-off after other acquisitions. He cites as examples The Internet Movie Database, better known as IMDb, and clothing company Zappos, both Amazon companies that make no reference to the fact on their homepages.

When Woot announced that it was becoming a free-standing subsidiary of Amazon, the news was inevitably released through its blog. The announcement resulted in 930 comments from followers.

Almost all wished the company well. Even those who chastised the company for “selling out,” qualified it by saying the upstart company had earned the right to do so. Some had more personal concerns: They worried that soon there would be too much competition for the best bargains when they appear on Woot’s website; others asked if they’d be able to save on shipping by combining a Woot product with an Amazon order. As both Amazon executives and loyal Woot customers know, Woot’s value is in its unique brand. As one commenter on the blog put it, the key to the Amazon takeover working out is “Keeping the 'wootness' alive.”

Tim Woodcock is former editor of the West End Word. Originally from Great Britain, he’s lived in St. Louis for nine years and currently teaches journalism at Saint Louis University. He has also written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Beacon.

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