Rodale: Soon to Be a Retailer

The health and fitness publisher gets set for an ambitious e-commerce play

Maria Rodale calls herself a writer, cook, organic enthusiast and romance novel lover. Now she can add one more to the list: online retailer.

The health and fitness publishing company that bears her name is launching an e-commerce venture that is more aggressive than the typical online retailing efforts coming from magazine publishers lately. Trading on the company’s healthy and eco-friendly image, Rodale’s, as the new site will be called, is set to open this spring. It will sell luxury home and beauty products that are also sustainable. Whereas other publishers have taken a cautious approach to e-commerce, limiting their upside, Rodale is aiming for a bigger slice of the pie by handling the whole operation itself, from developing the technology to vetting and acquiring the merchandise and holding the inventory.

“This is a stand-alone business,” said Michele Barbone, Rodale’s new executive director of merchandising, formerly of Anthropologie and A Pea in the Pod. “When you do these affiliations with a Park & Bond or a Gilt, you’re just getting a piece of the pie. We’re going to buy these at cost and sell them at retail, just like a specialty store, so there’s a bigger margin there.” With the affiliate partnerships, magazines typically get some 7 percent of each sale, whereas a retailer could get well over 50 percent.

When other publishers have dipped into e-commerce to buoy their sagging businesses, they’ve generally piggybacked on existing online retailers like Gilt Groupe. Others, notably Lucky and Harper’s Bazaar, have gone further and started their own sites, but they’re still sending shoppers to other retailers to complete the sale. Pamela Kruse, who’s managing ShopBazaar for Bazaar, said the company hasn’t ruled out holding stock further down the road. For now, ShopBazaar wanted to focus on getting the technology and customer experience right while learning from its retailer partners, with their years of buying knowledge. Editors may have a good sense of what readers like in a fashion spread, but liking a dress doesn’t necessarily mean they’re running out and buying it. “We don’t always know what’ll sell,” said Kruse.

Most publishers don’t have the expertise on staff to be retailers; Rodale hired 10 people who are dedicated to the site, which is overseen by Anthony Astarita, a former Barnes & Noble exec who was hired last year as gm of digital and brand development. And of course, Maria Rodale will be heavily involved in all aspects of the business. “She’s almost a natural merchant,” Barbone said. “She is a visionary. Her enthusiasm is infectious.”