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UncommonGoods - Funky Online Marketplace Does Good While Doing Well

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JB: Nice! You also have a give back program. Can you touch on that, please?

DB: Sure.  Back in 2001, we decided to launch a program called Better to Give, where we donate $1 per order when our customers select one of four non-profits at checkout.  Since then, we've donated over $300,000 to a variety of worthy organizations, including American Forests, City Harvest, RAINN [ Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network] and Women for Women International.  I prefer the transparency of this approach to the opaque "portion of proceeds" or even a specific percentage of profits, where profits are not disclosed.

While I am a believer in corporate philanthropy, I think it would be a lot less necessary if businesses took our responsibilities more seriously.  Paying someone the minimum wage, who then gets government (aka taxpayer-funded) subsidies for food stamps and Medicare, and then having the company donate millions to the charity of their choice is a lot less sustainable than simply paying a living wage and providing health insurance for your workers.

JB: True. How did you decide which non-profits to sponsor?

DB: The non-profits have evolved over the years - we started with causes that our team members cared about and researched the effectiveness of non-profits addressing those issues.  We've focused on the environment/wildlife, women's issues (80% of our customers are women and about half our suppliers are women-led businesses) and local NY non-profits.  Every quarter, we measure the votes each non-profit receives from our customers and we continue working with those that our customers support.

pulling stock in our warehouse by UncommonGoods

JB: Uncommon Goods has gotten a lot of accolades, pretty much from the get-go: from NBC's Today Show [2000], Newsday [2000], Good Housekeeping [2000], Forbes' "Best of the Web" [2001], TIME [2002], Esquire [2004] - that's a merchandiser's dream. How have you gone about cultivating a positive image in the press? It's one thing to run a good business and another to get the press to notice you.

DB: We've actually taken a fairly low-key approach to stories about our company.  We have a concerted effort around getting the products and artists we feature written up, but have not taken that approach with our company's story.   I'm not a big believer in self-promotion, which may hold us back a bit, but we've done ok without it.  

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JB: You did have an attention-getting iPhone case contest recently. Can you tell us about that?

DB: We host regular design challenges every month and our iPhone event last year was one of our most popular.  We had well over 100 entries and our customers participated in the voting to choose the finalists and a panel of judges chose the winner.  Naomi Meller's circuit board was the winner and it's gone on to win rave reviews from customers - with a 4.9 out of 5.0 average review rating. Here's the product . Here are some moving posts [ here and here ] Naomi wrote about her experience participating in the challenge.

An artist that participated in one of our other challenges wrote this thoughtful post last year about design contests in general and ours in particular - it's worth reading.

JB: Wonderful. On top of your environmentally friendly, sustainable, fun and arty products, you have an impressive return policy. How did you decide on it and were you ever afraid that it would be a losing proposition?

DB: It's a funny story.  Years ago, my wife gave me two flannel shirts from LL Bean.  In no time, I had worn holes in the elbows of both shirts, which surprised me since I assumed they'd be pretty rugged.  I planned to return them, but stuck them in my closet and forgot about them.  

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Finally, I called to get a return authorization and the agent couldn't find any record of my order.  It turns out I had received them seven years earlier.  The agent asked if I still wanted to return them.  She told me that I was entitled to, since LL Bean has a return forever guarantee.  Even though I felt a bit sheepish about returning such an old purchase, I was dissatisfied and felt I was entitled to a credit.  

Afterwards, I decided that UncommonGoods should have the same policy.  We are not standing behind our products for 30 days and then walking away.  If at any time a customer feels a product they purchased from us falls short of their expectations, they can return it.  

I want our customer service team to feel they are advocates for our shoppers, not adversaries.  There were many people in the company who felt this was a risky decision and it did lead to an increase in our return rate.   Ultimately, it caused us to focus even more on product quality and to partner with suppliers who share that commitment.  In time, our return rate has come down and is now about 2%.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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