E-Retail Startups Aim to Make Holiday Shopping Easier, Texas Style

Xconomy Texas — 

It doesn’t seem like the “most wonderful time of the year” when you’re trapped in a slow vehicular death march in a mall parking garage, looking for that one available spot—as the radio station blares “The Little Drummer Boy” for the 4,349th time.

It’s enough to bring out the Scrooge in all of us. But fear not, dear reader. The elves at Xconomy Texas have some ideas on how to make at least the shopping part of the holidays easier.

(Of course, just because these companies are in Texas doesn’t mean Xconomy and Xperience readers can’t access their services from other parts of the country. And for specific ideas on cool gifts for the techies in your life, take a look at suggestions from my colleague Wade Roush.)

CheckedTwice (Houston)

The pitch: A gift registry designed for families.

How it works: Andrew Swick, CheckedTwice’s founder and CEO, says the concept is akin to wedding registries but for “other events that happen in the year,” such as the holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Users create an account and invite people to join. Wish lists for each member are located on the left side of the screen. Once you’re into the list, you can click on a particular item and claim it, as you would for online wedding registries. CheckedTwice takes you directly to the retailer’s website—say, Amazon.com—where you complete the purchase.

The backstory: In 2002, Swick’s sister (and co-founder Rebecca Hyatt) e-mailed her wish list to the entire family. That Christmas, she got three copies of the same Robert Frost poetry anthology she had requested. Swick says Hyatt asked her family, “Couldn’t you all talk to each other?” So, by the next year, the pair had built a simple website around the basic idea of a family registry that they used for six years. By 2009, they threw it open to friends. “We got a little advertising in 2010, did nothing in 2011, and people came back,” Swick says. “By 2012, we were thinking, let’s try to turn this into a real product.”

CheckedTwice, which makes money from affiliate programs with major online retailers that pay it a cut of sales, has raised $200,000 from friends and family. In the last 10 weeks, Swick says the traffic has jumped by five and he expects the site will reach 50,000 users by the end of the holiday season.

The next step: Swick says he wants the Houston startup to “own occasions,” with registries that include birthdays, graduations, back-to-school and other gift-giving reasons. “We’re really aiming for year-round engagement with our customers,” he says.

Worth It (Houston)

The pitch: The Priceline for Online Shopping

How it works: A shopper sets up an account, and downloads Worth It’s bookmarklet into their browser’s toolbar. Then, they go shopping online, where they see a TV for $2,000 when they only want to pay $1,500. “Click our bookmarklet and a pop-up screen let’s you choose 20 percent or 30 percent off, or put in your own price,” says Jason Kaminsky, Worth It’s founder and CEO. “Click ‘Track it.’ We now go out and find this TV for $1,500.”

Worth It’s software scans the Web for your custom-priced TV. Unlike Priceline, however, users are not locked into the purchase, Kaminsky added.

The backstory: Kaminsky was a soon-to-be new father in July of last year when he noticed that the stroller he wanted appeared at different prices depending on which website he visited. “So, I went looking for a tool that would search the Internet to let me know if the stroller was available for a certain price,” he says.

Worth It officially formed as a company a few months later, and by this past September, Kaminsky had quit his financial planning job to devote himself to the Houston startup. He worked with partners to develop the software and estimates that he has 7,000 users currently.

Worth It also receives percentages from retailers for each sale through their affiliate marketing programs. Kaminsky says its edge over competitors, such as New York-based Hukkster, is that it can search across all websites, not just the original site where a shopper has found an item. He says the startup has raised money from friends and family but declined to disclose how much.

The next step: Expanding its partnerships with online retailers.

Loop & Tie (Austin, TX)

The pitch: The gift card’s sophisticated cousin

How it works: Sara Rodell, Loop & Tie’s founder and CEO, describes the website as a way to combine the ease of a gift card with the uniqueness of a “picked-especially-for-you” gift. Users choose among collections at different price points—$25, $50, $75, or $100—and either opt for a specific item to give or let the recipient choose among the items in that category. “Once they click the link from e-mail, they are directed into gallery of choices but don’t see the price,” Rodell says. “The redemption part is hidden.”

The website features a box of salted and crushed espresso caramels and a three-ounce Izola pocket flask for $25 to a package of eight steaks from grass-fed cows on Texas ranches and a large terracotta slow-cooker for $100. (Loop & Tie’s premise sounds similar to Wantful, a New York and San Francisco-based startup that ceased operations in September, after having successfully raised $5.5 million in Series A funding, including from Seattle retailer Nordstrom.)

The backstory: As an institutional stockbroker at UBS, Rodell found arranging for clients’ holiday gifts a time-consuming and inefficient process. “There were kosher clients that don’t drink; someone whose kid had peanut allergies,” she says.

When she finally found gifts tailored to her clients, they were usually from mom-and-pop stores, which had websites that didn’t save orders or billing information, which meant she had to re-enter each order each year. Her first go as a gifting startup was an app called “The Next One’s On Me,” where people could gift food or beverage items at Austin restaurants and bars through a system of tokens.

But the need to have one-to-one conversations with each of the establishments proved to be unwieldy. So, Rodell switched the emphasis to retail products. She and her co-founder Jeffrey Schwartz, who is the startup’s COO, worked with local developers for the site and have raised $625,000 from friends, family, and angel investors.

The next step: Given her work history, it’s not surprising that Rodell sees the most opportunity in large-scale giving by businesses. “You want to send gifts that are more remembered than a branded coffee mug or a fruit basket,” she says.