BTB Marketplace Gets Buried Like Its Underground Retail Sister

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Empori.com, Toronto, said last week that its business-to-business site will eventually be shut down after being purchased by Canadian portal www.bellzinc.ca.


BellZinc plans to fold the site in the coming months, said David Bowden, managing director at Empori.com. Empori offers an online marketplace of business services from firms such as Xerox, Corporate Express and Steelcase.


Bowden said BellZinc will use Empori's customer database and some of its vendor relationships, but the brand itself will be terminated.


The development follows Empori's announcement July 16 that its business-to-consumer venture had folded.


Empori had one of the more unusual retail business models attempting to leverage the Internet. The model was based on eight stores in Toronto's underground tunnel system, which exists in the city's high-traffic financial districts.


The stores included Internet service through which people could purchase from a variety of popular retailers such as Sears.com and HMV.com. The retailers paid Empori a sales cut.


The orders were delivered to the stores and placed in secure lockers. Empori then notified customers via e-mail when their orders arrived. Bowden said some deliveries were same-day, and others took up to three days. The e-mails included a locker personal identification number so customers could pick up orders without assistance.


Once the items were picked up, the lockers automatically made themselves available for use again in the Empori computer system. The stores also had technical assistants available to help people who had never purchased online.


Bowden said the company had gross profit margins of approximately 8 percent to 10 percent. Bowden said his company could have turned a profit if it had had the cash to launch an additional 90 stores, dismissing the notion that consumer adaptability was a problem.


"Our customers expressed to us how much they liked the service," he said. "It's all about volume. With the current investment climate, there was little hope of getting money to expand to where we needed to be."


Bowden said the most popular ordering categories at the locations were easy-to-carry items such as books, music and liquor.


Barrett LaMothe Ladd, an independent retail analyst based in Concord, MA, said those product categories should have served as a sign of trouble for Empori.


"Books and music are items that can be packaged and shipped and delivered effectively by companies like Amazon," she said. "As a consumer, why would I want to make the effort to stop by the lockers when I can have the convenience of home delivery? Especially in Canada, where everything is spread out."


The BTB venture, on the other hand, delivered orders to the businesses using www.empori.com/b2b/home.asp.


Bowden said there were a few layoffs involved in the closings. However, he said most Empori employees would be reassigned to its parent firm Oxford Properties Group Inc., a real estate company in Toronto.


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