Need a five-pound gummy bear or a 4,000-calorie candy worm? Maybe you’re craving a bite of the world’s hottest chocolate bar. Or maybe you just need to see what life would be like with a pair of really tiny hands.
Then you need to check out St. Louis-based Vat19, which has been selling some of the world’s oddest products at its Web site – Vat19.com – since the company broke into retail in 2006.
While you’re there, check out the YouTube videos that the company produces. They are one reason – a big one – why Vat19 has been able to thrive and grow while so many other traditional retailers have faltered. The videos are one way, too, that Vat19 can survive as a purely online company in a world in which Amazon seems intent on gobbling up every retail business that exists.
Thanks to its daily stream of videos, Vat19 has created a dedicated customer base, many of which visit the site daily just to watch the YouTube videos that owner Jamie Salvatori and his cast of actors produce.
Salvatori said that Vat19’s YouTube channel has more than 4.5 million subscribers. And the Vat19.com site nabs about 10 million visitors a year.
The power of YouTube has certainly provided a boost to Vat19. Consider that a video for the largest slushy maker – 44 gallons – that the company uploaded in September of last year has generated more than 10.4 million views. A video for its giant gummy worm, which shows a fisherman using the multi-colored candy for bait, has generated more than 80 million views since being uploaded way back in October of 2010.
Not all of these viewers or visitors buy products. But enough of them do to keep Vat19’s warehouse staff busy.
And that along with the company’s constant search to offer products that consumers can’t find on Amazon has served as its formula for success.
Beating Amazon in other ways? Salvatori says that will never happen.
“Our bread and butter is making videos and promoting our products,” Salvatori said. “I’d rather compete against Amazon with our videos and promotional skills as opposed to taking them on through logistics. They’ve already won that war. I surrender.”
Like others in retail, Salvatori keeps a close eye on Amazon. He’s seen the impact the online giant has had on brick-and-mortar retailers.
What Salvatori also sees, though, is that Amazon isn’t content to go after the business of physical retailers. The company is going after the business generated from online companies, too.
“It’s been a bloodbath for physical retailers,” he said. “But Amazon is coming for everyone. Even the online companies aren’t really safe. That sounds negative, but it’s true. Amazon wants all the business. Amazon wants every single order. We see it here.”
How, then, does a smaller company like Vat19 survive? It sells sticky toys that look like poop, a product named Sticky the Poo.
That sounds flip, but there’s truth to this strategy. Salvatori says that Vat19 searches for products that consumers won’t be able to order on Amazon. They then promote those products with YouTube videos that aim to make potential consumers laugh. (The video for Sticky the Poo? It’s nabbed more than 4 million views since launching in June of 2017.)
The only way to compete against Amazon is to sell things they don’t sell,” Salvatori said. “As pessimistic as that sounds, it’s almost impossible to compete selling the same products that they sell, unless you are gigantic, like WalMart, and you can try to go head-to-head with them on price. Otherwise, you have to find something that they don’t have, a product or service. That is your only hope.”
This strategy has worked so far for Vat19. The St. Louis company operates out of a building that includes a warehouse of about 12,000 square feet. When orders come in, the company’s warehouse staff picks gummy worms, cans of putty and spicy chocolate bars about boxes labeled with product names.
These workers than pack the orders and ship them.
Salvatori said that Vat19 has been able to keep up with orders with its own staff, and doesn’t outsource. There’s a reason for that: Many of the company’s products need tender-loving-care when they’re shipped out. Vat19 sells a lot of candy. Often these orders need to be packed with ice packs so that the candy doesn’t melt. Warehouse workers often have to wrap products in foil to prevent them from overheating.
“We like the idea that we are in control of that,” Salvatori said. “We want to be in control of making sure that our customers get a perfect order.”
Salvatori said that Vat19 got its start as a video production company in 2001. The company produced commercial for local companies. It also created training films and marketing videos.
Salvatori enjoyed making videos. A lot. What he didn’t like, though, was making the videos and commercials that his clients wanted.
So Salvatori branched into retail, with the goal of making the videos he actually wanted to make to promote his own products.
Today, Vat19 employs staff members dedicated solely to creating its videos. This includes writers, editors and, of course, a core group of actors.
“My guiding principle is that if you are entertaining people or making them laugh, you have a better chance of selling them something,” Salvatori said. “If you are making videos and having fun doing it, that seems to come through. We hope that people enjoy the videos and that they come to store at some point and buy something from us when they have a gift-giving occasion coming up.”
Salvatori said that he hasn’t run any analytics to see if his products do sell better when they have videos attached to them. What he does know is that the videos bring visitors to Vat19.com. The main source of traffic for the site, in fact, comes directly from YouTube, where many potential customers first discover Vat19.
After customers check out, a message pops up, asking customers how they heard about Vat19. More than 50 percent of respondents say it’s from YouTube.
Salvatori hired the actors in his company’s videos, and he didn’t know them before that. He’s now developed a core group who make regular appearances in the videos, sometimes as themselves, other times as different characters.
“When we first started, I was in every single video,” Salvatori said. “I had to be. I’d hit record on the camera and then run around in front of it. Eventually, we started adding more people. A lot of them were people who worked here. That happened to work out great. People subscribe to YouTube channels where they feel like they get to know the people behind them. The same people have been in our videos for many years, and people really feel like they know them now.”
Salvatori said that subscribers watch all of Vat19’s videos, even if they’re not interested in the product being advertised. Even if they don’t necessarily want, say, a desktop punching bag, they will watch the video promoting the product just to see their favorite actors at work.
“That’s what’s special about what we do,” Salvatori said. “Most people want to skip the ads. For us, people are watching by choice what is essentially a commercial. That’s what makes us different from most others.”
Choosing the right products to sell matters, then. Vat19 focuses on products that will perform well in videos. That means they usually do something. A product might move. It might spray something. It might bounce or it might produce shocking electricity.
It’s why the company doesn’t sell home decor products. Those products just sit there. They don’t perform well in videos.
“We want something that is unique,” Salvatori said. “We want people to look at our videos and say, ‘I don’t know where else I would find that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that before.'”