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One Way To Compete With Amazon In E-Commerce: Personality

Gift-box delivery service Man Crates is funny so that you don’t have to be.

If you order Man Crates’s $49.99 “Snack Sensei” gift box, it will arrive in a cardboard box that contains a sealed plywood crate, a mini crowbar, and a card that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, pry, pry again.” It will not be easy to open. And by the time your boyfriend, father, brother, or other male-person gift recipient has actually applied the necessary amount of force, he will have created “a scene.” A crowd of coworkers will be gathered around his desk (because, let’s be real, you’ve sent this potential spectacle to the office), and splinters of wood will sit scattered on his carpeted cubicle floor like small monuments to his middle-America brand of manliness. Hammers will probably be involved.

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Inside, he’ll find an array of Japanese candy. And Man Crates founder Jon Beekman is basically already giggling as he winds up to tell me, “The candy guide also comes in Japanese, so you have no idea what you’re actually eating!”

This type of refined trolling is the basis of everything at Man Crates, a company that Beekman started in 2011 after stumbling on a “gift baskets for men” category. At the time, he was working on a gifting software startup. (Short story: “We raised a bunch of money, and then we sort of pivoted into the ground.”) But working there helped him realize the problem with men’s gifts was not the online buying mechanism. “I said, what if we got rid of all the bows, ribbons, and fluff, and just took awesome stuff—instead of this crap—packed it into a crate, and made people open it with a crowbar?” Beekman says. “It literally happened like that.”

Man Crates now has 40 employees and a 60,000-square-foot warehouse. It has shipped more than 100,000 crates and expanded into product categories that don’t even come in crates (like its $19.99 four-pack of “Mount Rubs-more” spices for the Fourth of July).

You can buy something similar to just about anything included in any Man Crate on Amazon and spend less money. But it probably won’t feel like as much as an experience (where’s the crowbar?). What the business is built on is an odd competitive advantage: a sense of humor.

It started with the crate itself. “If you think about the way that guys bond a little bit,” Beekman says, “a lot of times it’s guys ragging on each other, and that’s the way we tell each other that we’re in the group. So if you give a gift that has some of those elements to it, and you call up and say, ‘Dude, you’re such a bastard, you made me open this thing. And I couldn’t get it open for 15 minutes, and everybody was calling me weak because I couldn’t get it open,’ that’s a memory.”

And of course, if you’d like to really make it stick, shall we say, you could upgrade to the “diabolical duct-tape cocoon,” which for an additional $10 will make opening the gift an even bigger ordeal.

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But making stuff hard to open is not impossible to replicate. Over time, Man Crates has necessarily become more sophisticated. Beekman quickly learned that he wasn’t selling to men. About 70% of Man Crates’s customers are women buying gifts for men, and one of its best marketing channels is Pinterest, which has a mostly female user base. That influenced the brand. “We’re not a bro brand,” Beekman says. “We’re not like a CollegeHumor brand. Tasteful irreverence is a big thing for us. The humor is very self-deprecating. It’s all directed at the stupid stuff guys do.”

Man Crates team

The website, for instance, reminds users, “The Man Crates crowbar doubles as either a toilet seat lifter or a bottle opener. Choose only one.”

Man Crates also offers a feature that helps customers fill out their gift notes with something more than a boring “happy birthday” or what-have-you. Some examples:

“Never got to properly thank you for that stock tip–let me know when you can make it for the yacht party.”

“I’m much obliged for the adequate shelter and sustenance you provided during the dependent years of my life.”

“They know everything. Call it off.”

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On average, customers click the auto-generate note option 10 times before they check out, and after Man Crates launched the feature, gift-note inclusion grew from about 50% to over 90%. “If you’re told that you have to fill in for Jimmy Fallon and that you also have to write all your own jokes,” Beekman reasons, “that’s a pretty intimidating thing. If you’re told that you have to fill in for Jimmy Fallon, but all of the jokes are written by his team, and you’re going to kill it, that’s less daunting. We want to be like that team of writers and creatives who write the jokes for people.”

For Valentine’s Day this year, the company took the idea of writing the jokes a step further by offering an option for customers to send an “intentionally awkward video,” in which a Man Crates employee would read a gift note “while wearing cheeky costumes.” The idea was that a sweet note written by a significant other could become a little uncomfortable (read: funnier) if read by, say, an overly dramatic man wearing a unitard. About a quarter of customers chose the option.

And so, just as a crate you open with a crowbar became a crate you open with a crowbar mailed in a cardboard box entirely covered in duct tape, Beekman is in the process of leveling up on the concept.

Man Crates is building three sets for its customer-service representatives to use when recording personalized responses to inquiries. One is a sports stadium. One is a country rural fishing set. And one is a “man of leisure” set that includes a fireplace and mahogany chair. The plan is to set up these backdrops just a few feet from work stations, so that employees can roll their chairs back and record video responses on their phones without really leaving their desks. They’ll do the same for dramatic video readings of customer gift notes.

With all of this experience in place around the gift, what is inside the box—and whether or not you can buy it from a discount retailer–becomes less important. So much so, in fact, that Man Crates is planning to soon start selling gift cards (but first you have to get through the crate and a block of quick-drying concrete).

“Our brand is one of the few things that people can’t copy well,” Beekman says. “Man Crates is a company that is built from the ground up to do the best gifts for men. Amazon is the opposite: They want to serve as broad a market as possible. Their gift options are that you can put something in a bag.”

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About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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