Acumen's Goal: To Own the Southern Lifestyle Marketplace

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Mar. 10, 2014 12:00 am  

Lela Davidson (top), director of content for Acumen Brands and John Elliott (below), director of partnership marketing. Kiva Systems robots (right) bring merchandise for stocking at the Acumen Brands warehouse across from the company’s 200,000-SF headquarters.  (Photos by Beth Hall)

In December, Acumen Brands of Fayetteville announced objectives for 2014 that one company executive called “insane.” The leadership wanted five new programs to keep the company vibrant and growing, among those programs “flash sales” and “Marketplace.”

“Everyone said, ‘You guys are crazy,’” according to Lela Davidson, the company’s director of content. “There’s no way you can start all the new initiatives at once. But since January, flash has been launched, Marketplace has been launched and partnership has been launched.”

Flash sales was so popular that the surge of traffic slowed the main server so a backup server was kicked into use; officials said the lag was probably not noticeable to online shoppers. “It has been crazy successful,” Davidson said. “My best day here was when we broke the server. We were excited. We say we broke the server because it sounds cool. Sounds like you’re a badass. Every website owner wants to break their server.”

Marketplace went online March 3.

“Flash and Marketplace have dramatically exceeded our expectations,” Acumen CEO John James said in an email message to Arkansas Business. “Both these initiatives are part and parcel to the goal of owning the Southern lifestyle category online.

“Coupled with our core business, each of these growth initiatives are designed to accomplish a singular goal: owning/dominating/winning the Southern Lifestyle category.”

An $83 Million Injection

Acumen, launched in 2009, owns branded online stores for consumer-specific markets such as western wear (CountryOutfitter.com), medical uniforms (ScrubShopper.com) and work wear (ToughWeld.com). Business has been so good for Acumen that it moved this past year into a 200,000-SF facility on North Shiloh Drive in west Fayetteville.

Officials said that, during an average week, Acumen ships approximately 7,500 items. A little less than a year ago, the company received an $83 million influx of capital investment from the New York firm General Atlantic. Acumen is putting some of that money to good use.

In mid-February, Acumen started its flash sales on its Country Outfitter website. The promotion offers items for sale at a deep discount for a limited time.

A flash sale is just one of several initiatives Acumen is rolling out this year. When the company’s top executives met with the directors and explained their goals for this year, they were met with skepticism.

The leadership wanted five new programs to keep the company vibrant and growing. Country Outfitter, the company’s online flagship, had been a surprising hit — the store has 6.6 million “likes” on its Facebook page — but Acumen wasn’t content with its runaway star.

Flash sales was one of those new programs, along with “Marketplace,” a specialty shop within the Country Outfitter website for products from predominantly smaller and local suppliers, and a greater emphasis on partnership marketing.

Marketplace is an idea that hits close to James’ heart. James is a devoted supporter of local businesses, and Marketplace’s emphasis on local suppliers — Davidson estimated half of the suppliers are Arkansas companies — gives those businesses access to Acumen’s existing consumer base. “The Country Outfitter Marketplace [is] designed to give hundreds, then thousands of mom-and-pop brands the ability to showcase their wares to Acumen Brands’ 10 million customers,” James said.

Acumen was James’ creation with partner Terry Turpin. The pair figured out what merchandise online shoppers were looking for but couldn’t find, and then they devised a way to fill that void.

James, formerly a practicing doctor, started with selling medical uniforms but hit pay dirt with Country Outfitter. The company used the breadth of social media and software expertise that directed users of certain search terms to its website. The idea “was to find what they wanted but couldn’t find [online] but also had low-dollar value on search terms,” said John Elliott, Acumen’s director of partnership marketing. “Acumen was very data-centric. We’ve got so much information about the people who buy our products, the people who like us on Facebook.”

All those customers and the data showing what they like have made Acumen an increasingly attractive partner. Davidson and Elliott said Acumen has partnered with Sony Music to promote a lost album recorded by Johnny Cash.

If 7 million people like Country Outfitter's boots and western apparel, then it stands to reason it is a much-desired starting point for a country music icon’s CD. Couplings like these are why Acumen brought Elliott on board a few weeks ago.

“We’ve been growing exponentially over the last two, three years, especially with Country Outfitter,” Elliott said. “We’ve amassed this highly engaged, highly involved group of customers. Now we’re saying, ‘Great, how do we leverage this asset base that we’ve built?’”

The answer: “Reach out to different brands to give them access.”

Acumen had to change in order to continue its growth because it couldn’t sustain its monopoly on the innovative way it used search engines and social media to attract and collect consumers.

“Country Outfitter blew up, and it kind of exploded the model,” Elliott said. “The way we grew Country Outfitter, we can no longer grow it.”

The company uses a characteristic high-tech way to make sure those 7,500 shipments get out in an orderly fashion. The expansive warehouse across the street from headquarters has more than 1,000 pods — upright self-standing stack of shelves — that contain most of the company’s merchandise.

To retrieve the pods, Acumen has 29 robots that use a system of markers on the floor to navigate the warehouse, pick up the pod and return it to the order station. Once there, a red beam shines on the specific shelf that contains the ordered product.

The Multibillion-Dollar Goal

The Acumen headquarters resembles a rec hall more than a business center, with foosball and pingpong tables and youthful employees walking around casually dressed. Davidson said what the building really needs is a pool table.

The relaxed appearance belies the driving energy in the building. The developers are upstairs, Davidson said, while marketing is on the ground floor and the photography department is in the back.

“We’ve assembled a group of hyper-talented, hyper-competitive people pursuing the audacious goal of changing the entire face of retail,” James said. “With a great team pursuing a huge idea, growth comes naturally.”

Acumen has branched out in the offline world, too, opening a Country Outfitter store in the Old Post Office on the Fayetteville Square. Turpin told Arkansas Business in August that the location reinforced that Acumen was a Fayetteville company.

Its goals are much bigger than Fayetteville, of course.

“Our goals for the coming year haven’t changed — we will continue laying the groundwork needed to build a multibillion-dollar publicly traded company,” James said. “We’ve made huge strides toward that goal, and seeing the success of Zulily’s public offering and Gilt’s impending IPO motivates us to achieve similar, if not grander, success.”

 

 

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