The Orthodox Jewish Amazon Whisperer

From Fast Company

Chaim, it turned out, was Chaim Pikarski, an Orthodox Jewish man with a wispy red beard who seemed amused at my attempt to understand his business. He also knew his Hipe speaker would appeal to me, because that insight–knowing what people are searching for on Amazon–is at the core of what he does. He has an entire team of people who read reviews on Amazon, looking for moments when people say, “I wish this speaker were rechargeable.” Pikarski then makes a rechargeable version. Hipe exists, in essence, because enough people think like me. It’s a profitable trick: C&A Marketing does “in the nine figures” in sales every year, Pikarski says, and grows at about 30% annually.

Hipe is one of many thousands of products Pikarski has produced over the past 10 years, using so many brand names–DBTech, LyxLabs–that he’s lost track. “My wife and kids don’t buy anything for the house,” he says. “Whenever they buy something, they’re always afraid I’m going to come home and say, ‘You know, I sell that.'” Then he invited me to his warehouse to see them all.

Sam is, in fact, a real person, but he’s out of the room when Pikarski leads me into C&A’s 150,000-square-foot headquarters in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. “Here’s your 10 Sams, and your 10 Sams-in-training,” he says–meaning guys like the one I wrote. Before us are rows of cubicles, almost entirely inhabited by bearded, yarmulke-wearing men in crisp white shirts. These are Pikarski’s buyers. (About half of C&A Marketing’s 150-person staff is Orthodox, though the buyers division is more homogenous. “The buyer that does all the storage products, he’s the only guy I let work out of home,” Pikarski says. “He’s Italian.”)

This is the heart of C&A: Each buyer has a specialty–beach products, cellular accessories, and so on. Their job is to scour the web to learn all the features people wish a product had, and hire a manufacturer, often in China, to make the desired version. Pikarski lets each buyer create their own Hipe-style brand name, and order anywhere from a dozen to a truckload of units. If they sell well, the product is renewed. Otherwise, it’s junked.

This wasn’t Pikarski’s original plan. He had a camera-film company, but in 2001, as that industry waned, he sold it and joined forces with onetime competitor Akiva “Harry” Klein. Two years later, the men unveiled C&A Marketing and sold digital cameras. They became (and still are) one of Polaroid’s largest licensees, making Polaroid products. (In 2012, they also bought a bankrupt Ritz Camera.)

But Pikarski didn’t want to be hitched to a shaky camera industry. In 2008, C&A began making lenses and other camera accessories, and from there, it wasn’t a huge leap to consumer electronics. That’s when he realized the transformative potential of platforms such as Amazon and eBay: Most manufacturers used them as a place to sell, but they’re actually giantlaboratories. In the past, say, an audio company would have to make many speakers–otherwise, who would take them seriously? But on Amazon, the consumer doesn’t look at a brand’s full line of products; she looks at Amazon’s full line, meaning a tiny company with one speaker can compete against anyone. Pikarski’s buyers need only to figure out what features consumers want, and then produce them. Once they succeed in one category, it’s easier to understand a related one. “So then you get to waterproof products,” Pikarski says. “Then to pool products, because if you can have a speaker in your shower, you can have a speaker that floats in your pool. And then you’re really getting into outdoor products. It’s like my wife shopping–it never ends!”

Amazon retail isn’t the endgame for Pikarski–it’s only a trampoline off of which he’s about to leap. “We said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we’re producing all these products–let’s innovate! Let’s design!'” he says. Over the fall, he began rebranding everything he makes. The simple, straight-to-Amazon products will get the brand name Jumbl. Well-selling Jumbl products will be redesigned and sold as Ivation; Pikarski will use the retail connections he fostered through Polaroid to place Ivation in stores, where he hopes the name will become recognized. (A third, its existing LyxLabs brand, will sell only pro audio equipment.) When we speak in September, a few products have been Ivationed and are up on Amazon. “We’ve seen a jump in sales in the double digits,” he says.

Pikarski, right, and two of his buyers, in their room of massive Amazon monitoring

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered daily in a must-read newsletter.