Gazoontite! That’s what you say when someone sneezes. But back in the early days of online retailing, around 1999 that is, an ambitious and cleaver entrepreneur by the name of Soon Chart Yu thought that bringing healthy products to people via the internet as well as through physical stores was not only a good idea, it was the wave of the future and he wanted in on the ground floor. Hence the concept of Click and Mortar, or Brick and Click, was born. As early as 1994, it is claimed that Pizza Hut took the first online order ever, so they probably reign as first, but there wasn’t much fanfare about that at the time. Sometimes being early and, and in the case of Yu, being inexperienced at the same time, can have its drawbacks. So goes the story of this now defunct and forgotten retail establishment that was ahead of its time. Known as, Gazoontite, they were one of the first Retail/eCommerce companies to promote and build an entire model around the multi-channel shopping environment.
Gazoontite opened its first store on Union Street in San Francisco in April of 1999 and at the same time built an online e-commerce web site to sell its products. The idea of a physical store along with an e-commerce channel was considered pretty advanced for its time. Aside from Amazon which had opened its virtual doors in 1994, just five years earlier, and Pizza Hut, there wasn’t much else in the way of consistent online shopping going on. At first the growth of the company moved at breakneck speed, Soon Chart Yu had such a demand for products that in desperation he decided to even halt marketing for a few months to allow his team to fulfill the high demand and he even had driven around the Bay Area himself to snatch up natural fiber products like duvet’s and comforters from retail competitors just to resell online to keep up with the higher than expected online demand. Not a bad problem to have, you would think.
Yu’s back end e-commerce algorithm relied on custom built technology, it was riddled with bugs and paled in comparison to today’s off the shelf retail software, but in its day, it was pretty sophisticated. E-commerce was still a new concept and you couldn’t just pluck a web site template from a service provider and go, you had to build it from scratch. That’s the true mark of pioneering.
By the time I started work at Gazoontite, they had already opened three stores, San Francisco, New York and Costa Mesa, CA. The store I was brought in on, their fourth and unfortunately their last, was just about to kick off in the Schaumburg IL. My first assignment at Gazoontite actually took on dual roles. I had been put in charge of, new construction for the new stores, and also QA (that’s quality assurance) for the new webiste. Though it might seem a bit odd upon first glance that web design and architecture would have anything in common, the two are actually deeply intermingled.
In taking on both roles, I was afforded the ability to be innovative in integrating the brick and mortar experience with the online brand. For example we introduced touch screen kiosks that would allow patrons to shop the stores entire inventory while still allowing them the opportunity to interact with the products in person. The kiosks were placed in the Schraumsberg store and quickly proved valuable in providing data about what products were in demand and how they could best be showcased to improve the buyers’ in-store experience.
In the end, the cohesive store and web design reflected the client’s values and mission to create healthy, sustainable products and to improve people’s quality of life. In being part of a trailblazing group of retailer’s to integrate bricks and clicks, Mr. Yu helped set the tone for what is now referred to as omni-channel retailing. The ability to bring a client’s vision to life that is responsible to the environment and innovative in design and thought leadership, is what makes my job meaningful and exciting. Although Gazoontite ultimately did not convince the world to breathe cleaner, the store did leave a lasting impact on the shopping experience as we know it today.