My Amazon search was specific: I wanted an inexpensive, waterproof, Bluetooth-enabled, rechargeable speaker, so that I could listen to podcasts in the shower. I expected many options. Instead, I got one: some black-and-green gadget called Hipe. Was that the brand name, or the model? The customer reviewers didn't seem to know, but they all agreed: Whatever Hipe is--and all it had to its name was this speaker and a crappy website with a customer-service email address--the product does work. And if you have any questions, some guy named Sam responds by email. I've spent $69.99 on shakier propositions. I bought it right away.
The speaker worked as advertised, but I had a question about connectivity. So I emailed Hipe, and, sure enough, Sam replied: "This is the answer I got from China, does this help at all?" What followed was a broken-English response that, after some parsing, was, in fact, helpful. But now Hipe made even less sense: Who was behind it? I Googled around and connected it to a New Jersey company called C&A Marketing, then emailed Sam to ask how the two were related. His reply: "☺"
I badgered. I pled. I finally talked Sam into meeting with me, and we set a date, but then he quickly retracted and put me in touch with a marketing guy, who put me in touch with a publicist, who invited me to a photography trade show in Manhattan called PhotoPlus and gave me these instructions: Come to the Polaroid stand and ask for Chaim.
Chaim, it turned out, was Chaim Pikarski, an Orthodox Jewish man with a wispy red beard who seemed amused at my attempt to understand his business. He also knew his Hipe speaker would appeal to me, because that insight--knowing what people are searching for on Amazon--is at the core of what he does. He has an entire team of people who read reviews on Amazon, looking for moments when people say, "I wish this speaker were rechargeable." Pikarski then makes a rechargeable version. Hipe exists, in essence, because enough people think like me. It's a profitable trick: C&A Marketing does "in the nine figures" in sales every year, Pikarski says, and grows at about 30% annually.
Hipe is one of many thousands of products Pikarski has produced over the past 10 years, using so many brand names--DBTech, LyxLabs--that he's lost track. "My wife and kids don't buy anything for the house," he says. "Whenever they buy something, they're always afraid I'm going to come home and say, 'You know, I sell that.'" Then he invited me to his warehouse to see them all.
Sam is, in fact, a real person, but he's out of the room when Pikarski leads me into C&A's 150,000-square-foot headquarters in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. "Here's your 10 Sams, and your 10 Sams-in-training," he says--meaning guys like the one I wrote. Before us are rows of cubicles, almost entirely inhabited by bearded, yarmulke-wearing men in crisp white shirts. These are Pikarski's buyers. (About half of C&A Marketing's 150-person staff is Orthodox, though the buyers division is more homogenous. "The buyer that does all the storage products, he's the only guy I let work out of home," Pikarski says. "He's Italian.")
This is the heart of C&A: Each buyer has a specialty--beach products, cellular accessories, and so on. Their job is to scour the web to learn all the features people wish a product had, and hire a manufacturer, often in China, to make the desired version. Pikarski lets each buyer create their own Hipe-style brand name, and order anywhere from a dozen to a truckload of units. If they sell well, the product is renewed. Otherwise, it's junked.
This wasn't Pikarski's original plan. He had a camera-film company, but in 2001, as that industry waned, he sold it and joined forces with onetime competitor Akiva "Harry" Klein. Two years later, the men unveiled C&A Marketing and sold digital cameras. They became (and still are) one of Polaroid's largest licensees, making Polaroid products. (In 2012, they also bought a bankrupt Ritz Camera.)
But Pikarski didn't want to be hitched to a shaky camera industry. In 2008, C&A began making lenses and other camera accessories, and from there, it wasn't a huge leap to consumer electronics. That's when he realized the transformative potential of platforms such as Amazon and eBay: Most manufacturers used them as a place to sell, but they're actually giantlaboratories. In the past, say, an audio company would have to make many speakers--otherwise, who would take them seriously? But on Amazon, the consumer doesn't look at a brand's full line of products; she looks at Amazon's full line, meaning a tiny company with one speaker can compete against anyone. Pikarski's buyers need only to figure out what features consumers want, and then produce them. Once they succeed in one category, it's easier to understand a related one. "So then you get to waterproof products," Pikarski says. "Then to pool products, because if you can have a speaker in your shower, you can have a speaker that floats in your pool. And then you're really getting into outdoor products. It's like my wife shopping--it never ends!"
Pikarski walks me through his warehouse. (He has others in London and China.) "It's very organized," he insists, though the organizing principle escapes me. Here's a stack of Wi-Fi boosters. There's a tower of flashlights. Pikarski often talks of his products as if they're hilariously obvious--that all he's done is open his ears. We pass a shipment of egg cookers sold under the brand DBTech. "There's nothing innovative about it," he says. "You like cooked eggs!"
The cooker sells alongside Cuisinart's on Amazon, and yet the two companies think very differently. Amazon is a "pretty significant" source of sales, says Cuisinart director of marketing communications Mary Rodgers, but Cuisinart, like many major brands, gets its feedback through expensive market research and services such as Google's Wildfire. "It's the product managers' responsibility to stay up to date on Amazon reviews," Rodgers says--but hey, product managers are busy folks. Pikarski is basically competing using a free, overlooked source of research.
He's surely not alone. More than 2 million of Amazon's vendors are what the site calls "third-party sellers," a complex designation that often means independent companies (including C&A). More than 40% of all sales on the site come from this group, up from 26% in 2007--making Amazon an ever-growing lifeline for the world's creators.
Amazon, of course, would like to actively serve both Pikarski and Rodgers, and it's tried to do that with a feature called Ask the Seller. Customers use it to reach out directly with questions. But Amazon spokesman Erik Fairleigh concedes that the feature isn't a market-research bounty. "Site-wide," he says, "I'm sure there are far more reviews than customers asking the seller." Those reviewers have no idea they just joined the R&D department.
Amazon retail isn't the endgame for Pikarski--it's only a trampoline off of which he's about to leap. "We said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're producing all these products--let's innovate! Let's design!'" he says. Over the fall, he began rebranding everything he makes. The simple, straight-to-Amazon products (like that egg cooker) will get the brand name Jumbl. Well-selling Jumbl products will be redesigned and sold as Ivation; Pikarski will use the retail connections he fostered through Polaroid to place Ivation in stores, where he hopes the name will become recognized. (A third, its existing LyxLabs brand, will sell only pro audio equipment.) When we speak in September, a few products have been Ivationed and are up on Amazon. "We've seen a jump in sales in the double digits," he says.
So what happens to my Hipe? Pikarski finally summons my mystery pen pal, Sam, to explain. A few minutes later, Sam Kain walks in. He's a full-bearded 29-year-old whose face reddens when I introduce myself.
"Ooh, ooh, yeah!" he says. "How's the speaker working out?"
C&A has a customer-service department, but Hipe was one of Sam's babies, and he wanted to see feedback directly. That's why he, a buyer, was the one answering my emails. But in the year since I bought it, the battery has started to wane, I tell him.
"Oh, it did?" Sam says. "Well, just contact Chaim. We'll send you a new speaker."
"No, he'll buy a new one!" Pikarski protests.
Actually, I'll have my pick. Based on customer reviews, C&A added features (caller ID, FM radio) and redesigned the speaker to be sold under Ivation. But the model I have will live on, sold with a Jumbl logo. People still buy it, so there's no reason to kill it off. Pikarski gives shoppers only what they want.