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Bargain hunters attracted to niche e-tailers

Bargain hunters attracted to niche e-tailers

Think of a retail boutique with a very, very limited range of products and bargain basement prices. Now, put that on the Internet and you have the next big thing in online shopping. Niche online stores are making a name for themselves by finding cool stuff -- from travel deals to live event tickets to surplus electronic and other thingies -- at discount prices that keep bargain hunters coming back again and again. "It's the power of the specialist. They know we are good at what we do," said Jim McCarthy, co-founder and chief executive of Gold Star Events, one of the Web's largest purveyors of half-price tickets for live entertainment. Goldstarevents.com lists about 800 live events each day for the U.S. metro areas it serves -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, San Jose, Chicago, Washington, New York, Boston and Las Vegas. Each week, the site sends its 420,000 members a customized rundown of offerings for their areas, based on a survey they filled out during the free sign-up process. The five-year-old Pasadena, California-based company is able to offer discounted tickets as much as six weeks in advance because of relationships with 2,000 live entertainment venues that want the assurance of filled seats, even at half-price. The low ticket prices and plentiful consumer ratings of the shows are evidently creating a generation of live-entertainment junkies, as revenues climb by double digits and the company eyes expansion in the United States as well as abroad, McCarthy said. "Let's say somebody is not a theatre fan. If we bring you cool choices (and) if we make it $11 (about 6 pounds) instead of $25, you are going to give it a shot," he said. A woot!? Every night, just before midnight Central Time, about 50,000 bargain hunters sign on to woot.com to watch the launch of the new woot. In web language, 'woot' is an expression of delight. On woot.com, a woot is a product, usually electronic, priced well below retail -- for only 24 hours, or until it sells out. The website, beloved by users for introducing products with a daily poem and song, is the consumer-facing side of a bricks-and-mortar electronics wholesale business run by Woot.com founder Matt Rutledge outside Dallas, Texas. "The website is our first retail channel. Prior to that we were selling to other retailers in bulk," Rutledge said. The idea for woot.com was born after Rutledge ended up with too small a quantity of robotic lawnmowers to sell to mass merchants but too many to sell one at a time on eBay. The site, launched in 2004, now has more than 700,000 users, and Rutledge estimates that about 500,000 "swing by each day to see what we have." Woot.com offers virtually no customer support and no product guarantees, but it keeps attracting users and growing revenue at about 30 percent a year, he said. "It's surprising, the loyalty," Rutledge said. Far from being a marketing ploy, the one-day, one-deal pace reflects the speed at which the company acquires new products. "There are billions of dollars of that sort of product in really big need of being liquidated. It's definitely a lot of product and a lot of opportunity out there," Rutledge said. So much so that woot.com launched two sub-sites this summer -- a wine liquidator (wine.woot.com), and shirt.woot.com for creative-design T-shirts -- in an appeal to the "deal seeking, really savvy shopper ... the expert in the family at finding the great deal," Rutledge said. Travelzoo Web-based publisher Travelzoo.com prides itself in finding the best deals on airfare, hotels, car rental, cruises and package trips for its 11 million users -- and making sure that they can actually book those deals. Travelzoo, founded by former magazine executive Ralph Bartel, surveys travel companies each week and, after test booking the trips multiple times, publishes the best deals it can find on its weekly "Top 20" newsletter. Travel companies and agencies pay Travelzoo to publish their offerings, but the company maintains that "only the most competitive make the Top 20" and "no amount of money ensures that a deal will get listed." Members also can get "Newsflash" alerts via email to new deals as they are published and a link to last-minute travel bargains.

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