Spend a few moments on Kaufmann Mercantile’s site, and you’ll quickly realize why they have been one of our favorite online stores for a couple of years now. Founded by Sebastian Kaufmann in 2009, Kaufmann Mercantile is a digital marketplace of well-curated and long lasting goods. The team behind the store chooses products that are manufactured with equal importance given to durability, functionality and aesthetics.
The Kaufmann experience takes us back to days of the past – when specialty stores existed (remember those) and salespeople were knowledgeable and could stand behind the goods that they sold. There was a certain level of confidence that you could place in a merchant. Although there seems to be a trend in today’s online markets to be more cynical of the exchange of goods and services, it is refreshing that Kaufmann Mercantile has taken significant strides to improve and correct this dynamic.
As we’ve noted earlier, we’ve had a long-running appreciation of Kaufmann Mercantile and their brand. We implicitly know and believe that every product on their site is there for a reason. We trust their eye and their word. Recently we had the pleasure of catching up with their founder, Sebastian Kaufmann, for a quick chat and to learn more about his passion for well-made goods.
Kaufmann Mercantile was originally conceived as a blog, went on to selling only a handful of products, and then to what it is today, carrying over 600 items across ten categories. Although Kaufmann Mercantile continues to grow at a steady rate, the expansion feels very organic. When you first launched Kaufmann Mercantile back in 2009, did you imagine what it would eventually become today?
The funny thing is that I kind of did. I really could see the beginning stages of a growing market and see that people were becoming more conscious of buying meaningful products. There has been this push for more and more product since the industrial revolution. Over time, it came to a point where people said; “I want to limit my purchasing down to what’s really relevant and meaningful to me.” Buying what’s important, instead of buying more and more. During the last three years, more stores have opened that are our competitors with a similar commitment to quality. This is ok because we operate in a growing market and there’s room. On the other hand, you have Amazon, for example, who is carrying everything. We’re kind of the opposite of that.
You’re right about that. A person can shop for anything and everything on Amazon, but with Kaufmann Mercantile, there’s a more curated approach to the inventory. It’s much more focused. What kind of criteria do you look for when evaluating the products that you choose to sell on your site?
The main question we’re always asking ourselves is not so much about the products we want to carry, because we want to carry everything, but really the idea of being able to find the best version of whatever you need for your daily life.
We’re looking for companies that are interesting and ones that we like to work with. What often happens when searching for the right company is that you find ones with incredible stories. Then that connects one thing to another, and at the same time, you learn their stance on the environment, ethical matters, etc. These things easily lend a hand to each other.
Having a stance on important issues (ethical matters, the environment, etc.) is key for any brand with a soul behind it. Through visiting the website and taking a look at the goods that are available, it is clear that the products that you choose to carry have been thoughtfully selected.
When luxury first started to appear it was all about quality, then much later came branding. We believe in the idea that luxury goods should be matched by a person or company who really cares about making their product well.
For most online companies, their focus is to see if they can get as many products in their web store as possible, and to capture every possible customer demand that could possibly arise. Targeting everyone from a person with a tight budget, to a person with a more flexible income. With this, you completely take away the filter. We only launch a few products a week, whereas other companies are launching 100 products per day. For them, it’s all about the efficiency of mass. For us, it’s the inefficiency of doing our research and looking at all the options that are available out there.
As a retailer, you have a responsibility for the product that you sell and I feel like many retailers, especially in the online world, have completely lost that responsibility and they’re just putting up fillers. I really like the idea of better quality, more meaningful product and more thought being given to what we’re doing. This idea is becoming more mainstream and I love it.
You’re in a position where you’re introduced to new products on a constant basis. Are there any particular goods that you sell in the e-commerce store that you’re particularly enjoying in your personal life?
There are a lot of things that we sell that I use every day. For example, I bike everywhere I need to go in New York City and I use the Seil Marschall backpack to hold all my stuff. I also use our Postalco wallet, one of our key chains, and an iPhone case that we carry on a daily basis. So actually, I really like the things that we’re selling but I have to find a balance because obviously I can’t be running around just in all Kaufmann Mercantile.
When we pick new products, we like to see how they feel and not just buy them off of a catalog number. Our product developer may take a sample home. We’ll use something in our kitchen or office here, or I may take something home. In that way we’re constantly testing products.
Your previous career was in filmmaking; quite a career change to becoming the founder of an e-commerce business. Were there any skills that you developed while in film production that carried over to what you’re doing now?
I had a film production company that did music videos and commercials. The number one thing I brought over from this is execution. Whenever you find out your deadline, you do just about everything to deliver it by that date. I’ve probably produced 500 films in my life and there have only been a handful of times when I had to call the client to let them know that it would be late. Being a retailer is very much about consistently executing – launching new product and sending out e-mails. It’s the attitude that we can do anything; whatever the challenge, we have to execute.
I spent 10 years working with creative people. Directors, stylists, set designers, etc. Being exposed to these creative conversations in my previous career put me in a good place to have creative conversations with people on my team. I really push people to think creatively all the time. Someone will come to me with an idea and I’ll reply, “sounds good, how can we make it better?” It’s what film people do all the time – talk with each other, and then make things better. That’s what motivates me – to keep improving the website, product photography, functionality and design. I like the creative challenge of improving things over time.
As an entrepreneur, you run the risk of work becoming all-consuming of your life and free-time. How do you decompress after the work day and on the weekends?
One thing that helps to keep me sane is that I bike for about half an hour to-and-from work every day. Our office is in Brooklyn and I live in Manhattan. That really is a good way for me to decompress before work. I come into the office and have many good ideas in my head because I’ve had the time to really think about them. Then I do the same thing on the bike ride home, relax, and kind of put the office behind me.
On the weekends, my girlfriend and I like to leave the city. We have friends who have a farm in upstate New York. It’s a little harder to do outdoorsy things on the East Coast, than the West Coast. I was living in Los Angeles for 8 years and there I did everything that was offered, from mountain biking, to windsurfing, to surfing, to hiking. It’s a little bit harder here but I still try to do these things as much as possible.
On a final note, where do you see the company heading in the future?
Our goal is to really do more of what we’re doing right now. I want Kaufmann Mercantile to become a well-known store and to become the place that people associate with quality products. That’s really in the DNA of what we’re trying to achieve, focusing on quality made products more than anything else.
All photographs courtesy of Kaufmann Mercantile