Brooklyn's Catbird Prioritizes Digital Over Brick-and-Mortar Expansion

Founder Rony Vardi says she will "absolutely not" open another storefront.
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Dhani Mau
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Founder Rony Vardi says she will "absolutely not" open another storefront.
Photo: Catbird.

Photo: Catbird.

While legions of obsessed shoppers have continued to happily cram into its tiny, singular storefront on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn every weekend, Catbird's employees have quietly been working on a total overhaul of its e-commerce site. Launching on Thursday, the website is more than two years in the making, and represents the cult-favorite jewelry brand's focus on digital, rather than brick-and-mortar, expansion.

Catbird's growth has been fast, but not forced. It first opened its doors in 2004, offering a number of indie jewelry (and, increasingly, beauty) brands in addition to its in-house line, known for its ubiquitous Threadbare and First Knuckle rings — still the company's most popular styles. Word spread quickly amongst the cool-girl crowd, and in 2013, online sales surpassed brick-and-mortar sales. (Last year, roughly 52 percent of sales came through Catbird's online channel, with a projection of 55 percent in 2015). As demand grew, founder Rony Vardi met with NYC-based agency Alexander Interactive to plan an overhaul of both the front and back ends of Catbirdnyc.com.

The new site includes features like styled-out homepage stories, an expanded wedding and engagement ring section, a "Collections" page for the in-house line, an interactive studio tour and, most importantly, streamlined international shipping. Catbird has partnered with shipping start-up Wynd to offer a flat rate of $45 for international shipping of orders under $5,000. Business-wise, it sees the biggest potential in Australia, Singapore, Japan and the UK.

The company also plans to launch same-day shipping in Manhattan and Brooklyn early next year. Currently, the company (somewhat frustratingly) does not provide free U.S. shipping (standard is $11), but does offer free in-store pickup.

The site relaunch — and the time it took to complete — also had a lot to do with the backend. "It is on such an outdated system," Vardi explained from Catbird's Williamsburg studio ahead of the site relaunch. "Honestly a lot of the motivating factors behind starting the new website are really unsexy. They're primarily on inventory and operations." Unsexy, maybe, but important if Catbird wants to meet demand for its dainty baubles, particularly around its busiest time of year: the holidays.

Photo: Catbird

Photo: Catbird

While Vardi prefers to keep prices reasonable year-round rather than discount heavily — Catbird only offers a limited-edition black diamond piece on Black Friday and will do "something" on Cyber Monday — the holidays are still a huge sales driver for regular gifts as well as engagement rings, which people do apparently buy online quite frequently.

But perhaps this is after checking things out in-store. "What we find is that the [online] customer oftentimes is the same customer," Vardi explained. "People come into the store and have already spent a really long time shopping online and they know exactly what they want and vice versa; they have go into the store and look at everything and go online and buy stuff."

Going forward, Vardi's goal is to improve customer service in order to bring more of the in-store experience online. "We know how to pick beautiful jewelry, we know how to make beautiful jewelry... now we can also help you choose a beautiful gift. Or say, you already have this, let us help you figure out what else you might want," explains Vardi of how she sees the site's future. While it doesn't exist yet, she sees live chat — with real humans who work at, and know, Catbird — as a big part of that. "Almost like a jewelry concierge." So far there's only been one major hire — a project manager brought on two years ago — around the site relaunch, but Vardi hopes to hire more in customer service specifically.

Online customer service, that is. When asked if she plans to expand Catbird's brick-and-mortar presence beyond that tiny Williamsburg shop, she did not hesitate when saying "Nope, absolutely not."

"I think that expansion is all about digital and international and I like to focus on the model we have," she continued. "I think it has endless potential for growth without the physical location."