How An E-Commerce Startup Is Reinventing The Wedding Registry

Gilt Groupe alums are making Zola's online registry a destination for couples tying the knot in a mobile-driven world.

It means love in Zulu language, but Zola, the online wedding registry startup, isn’t just interested in couples’ romance.

Instead, founder Kevin Ryan (part of the founding team at Gilt Groupe) and Gilt alumni Shan-Lyn Ma and Nobu Nakaguchi —are aiming to make the bride, groom, their family, and friends all fall in love with the gift-giving process.

Wedding gifts are big business. More than 67 million Americans said they’ll attend at least one wedding this year, according to a recent survey by American Express. Most of them will spend an average of $109 on a wedding gift for the newlyweds. That cost ratchets up to $200 if the giver is a close family member, according to the same study. Multiply that many people by even the lower average, and you’ve got a multibillion-dollar opportunity.

But Zola, a wedding registry platform which launched last October, is stepping into a crowded space. On one side, they face competition from traditional department stores such as Macy’s and Bloomingdales, both bastions of bone china place settings and blenders. On the other are big-box stores like Target and Home Depot that offer a host of practical household items. Then, aggregators, including XO Group, formerly known as The Knot, or RegistryLove, vie for virtual attention.

So far, Zola’s found its way into the hearts—and wallets—of users. More than 17,000 couples have started their registry on the site, signing up to add from among 3,000 items. The company reports that in March alone, couples added 100,000 items to their registries. The company has raised $3.25 million in Series A funding.

Most startups only dream of such out-of-the-gate growth. Zola’s founders have a few more tools in their kit than the average entrepreneur. Here’s what Shan-Lyn Ma, Zola’s CEO, tells Fast Company about the team’s competitive edge.

Make It All About Love

As a guest at multiple weddings over the past few years, Ma has witnessed firsthand how challenging it could be to purchase something meaningful for her friends. "I wanted to give them something that reflected our relationship, but I was limited to what is in the store," she says.

Ma says she agrees with a recent study out of the University of Notre Dame. The study found while gift registries were set in place to facilitate giving, the whole process—including its occasional hiccups like letting people purchase the same item or hanging up a transaction in cyberspace—could leave a giver cold.

Ma maintains that the team took a lot of time to make the buying process easy and quick. She points out that Zola is one of the few sites that take international credit cards and has the functionality to filter by price point, in addition to categories.

Ma’s experience launching Gilt Taste, the flash sale site’s marketplace for artisanal foods—which has since been folded into Gilt Home—also honed her eye for producing a simple, clean design. Items are sparely showcased against a bright, white background similar to Gilt’s. Yet within its clean lines, the couple has the ability to personalize their little corner of Zola with photos and anecdotes that make the web destination an extension of their personality.

Romancing Logistics

Any large e-commerce site has to work with a variety of brands and deal with the logistics of inventory, warehousing, and shipping. Ma says her time at Gilt has afforded her not only a relationship with multiple brands, but the ability to refine the inner workings of how to deliver thousands of gifts to many couples.

"We started with position that people could register for anything: product, experience, or cash," Ma says. They went to brands they had relationships with to begin. One thousand items quickly grew to 3,000 and counting, says Ma. That doesn’t include gifts like donations toward a down payment on a house, or a honeymoon.

The engineering team built in a way for couples to have the ability to create their own gift, or pull in a photo or barcode for an item that isn’t among Zola’s current assortment.

Thanks to Gilt Taste’s e-commerce—which had the company’s most extensive list of drop ship vendors—Ma says she learned how to manage a large network of drop shippers. "I avoided some of the challenges," she says, and she structured Zola to be similar, shipping directly from the manufacturer so the startup wouldn’t have to carry a lot of excess inventory.

She also wanted to facilitate the returns process. "A pain point before we launched was that couples were complaining they didn’t know what was coming, or when it was coming and had to back to the store to exchange [unwanted items]," she says. At Zola, most registered couples elect to have their gifts shipped at a later date instead of arriving piecemeal. That allows for virtual exchanges, says Ma. "We report to the couple what they received, and leave it to them to communicate to their guest."

Familiar Faces

To pull this kind of complexity off, "you need a great design and tech team," Ma says. "We found design is so important in driving [sales]."

She says around 25 people are currently working on the site’s architecture and UX design; a third of them engineers. At Gilt, Ma says: "We got to work with some of the best people." Though Zola is obligated not to poach people from Gilt, many of its current staff left their alma mater to work at other places. "We pulled them back in," Ma says, with a laugh.

That’s been particularly important, as Zola recently launched its iOS app so couples could add to their registry from anywhere. The mobile app is able to scan any barcode anywhere in the world, and if one doesn’t exist, the app can upload a photo and the couple can add a price. Alerts and notifications come baked in, so returns or exchanges can happen more quickly.

All Successful Relationships Take Work

After the last glass has been raised, real life sneaks in for most happy couples. For Zola, this honeymoon period of rapid growth is also a learning opportunity to strengthen the company’s relationship with partners and customers.

Ma says the team is carefully monitoring what happens in Zola’s first official wedding season. While she’s staying mum on plans for expanding into other verticals—including a baby registry—Ma says the most important goal is to make Zola "a place people trust, that they know reflects who they are."

Ma admits another goal is to gain significant market share. "There are 1.5 million couples [getting] married every year," she says. "We still have a long way to go."

[Image: Flickr user Lindsay]

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