Week of May 15, 2000
  Editor's Choice Web Pick
   of the Week

Storetrax: A Promising Retail-Sector Site
That's Not Quite There Yet

This seemed like a week for broadening our horizons, what with IDRC and NACORE discussing integration. Whatever shape it assumes, the hookup of real estate's two unrivaled thoroughbreds will mark an epochal moment in the industry.

Our moment here is less epochal. But it is a bit different. This week we're looking at a retail site.

When the esteemed Peter Pike talks, we listen. And that's what led us to Bethesda, Md.-based Storetrax (www.storetrax.com).

Actually, it wasn't really Peter talking that led us to Storetrax, a retail real estate listing and information database. Instead, it was a development at April's PikeNet 2000 conference in San Francisco. At that cyber-convening, a panel of judges named Storetrax the real estate industry's No. 2 "most promising Internet startup." And Storetrax got those props from a pretty impressive judging panel: GE Capital Real Estate and Staubach Co., for example, plus AEW, Autodesk Ventures, Bank of America Securities, CalPERS, Cohen & Steers, Marcus & Millichap Ventures, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Putnam Lovell, Real Estate Technology Partners, and Zero Gravity Venture Partners.

So we were off to see this (alleged) wizard.

And, yes, we found some wizardry. And, yes, we found some areas more like the little man behind the curtain. No, we realized, we weren't in Kansas anymore. We were once again in Web-land, truly a realm of wonder and limitless potential -- as well as a place where some things just ain't quite right yet.


'I LOVE YOU,'
I Love You Not

First, a few words about fairness. More specifically, a few words about "I LOVE YOU." "Love is just a four-letter word," Bob Dylan once wrote. And in the last few weeks, that pesky viral devil has had most of us spewing a torrent of other four-letter words. So if some things in cyberspace aren't quite working, there's a shadow of a doubt as to whether the blame rests in that amorous virus.

Now, on to Storetrax.

Let's first take the high (Yellow Brick) road. This site does have a lot going for it, particularly its focus. Focus was undoubtedly the light that went on in the head of 29-year-old Web junkie Josh Gurland, a former retail broker. While working in Carey Winston's research department, Gurland was responsible for administering the database system for CoStar (www.costar.com), an online winner for commercial real estate industry.

The rest, you can guess: "Why not retail? Aha! Eureka!" Etc.

Yep, Storetrax is all retail all the time. And there's a lot to be said for that focus. Cyberspace is one of the greatest weapons the real estate industry has ever had at its disposal. Many real estate sites, though, seem to be trying to be everything to everyone. Go too far down that path, and you end up being nothing to anyone.

By focusing, Storetrax has beaten that trap. The site's also free, and you don't even have to register.


A Banner-Free Zone

Storetrax navigates smoothly, and its graphics are serviceable enough.

The graphic element you'll probably notice most, though, is the one that's not there: ads. There simply aren't any.

Unavoidably, cyberspace is a many-bannered thing. Someone has to pay the online freight. Moreover, advertisers now rank Web ads as their second-ranked strategy, eons ahead of direct mail.

But you'll find no banners on Storetrax. At first, the absence of ads seems slightly jarring. You sense something's missing, something you're used to seeing. But as with watching HBO, you quickly adjust to the ad-lessness.

Property owners are who's paying the online freight at Storetrax. They pay a small fee to have their properties listed. Onsite ads are "under discussion," Gurland says.


Former GE Capital Real Estate Exec
Heading Up Storetrax Sales

You won't get nationwide retail information from Storetrax. Not yet, at least. The startup is still expanding. Thus far, it has a presence in 25 U.S. states.

But a recent financing deal will probably accelerate the Storetrax expansion: JBG Rosenfeld Retail Properties, a power in the greater Washington, D.C., area, has just ponied up a major investment in the site. (JBG Chief Executive Robert Rosenfeld now serves as Storetrax CEO, with Gurland assuming the title of president.)

Also likely auguring well for future expansion at Storetrax is Joseph Stevens' recently assuming the position of vice president of national sales. Prior to joining Storetrax, Stevens was district manager for GE Capital Real Estate.


Searching for a Site for
'Little Coach Bobby's Slaphappy Store'

Information, of course, is the big enchilada here. And some of what's here is very good. Other parts . . . well, as our second-grade teacher used to note on the "citizenship" grades on our report card, "needs work."

Naturally, we took a test drive.

We started out small. Specifically, we started in Bloomington, Ind. We were somehow infatuated with the notion of opening a little something we entitled "Little Coach Bobby's Slaphappy Store." (Slogan: "You'll Choke on Our Low, Low Prices!" Biggest venture-capital backer: John Rocker.)

Under the Bloomington listings, we found several city categories, some of them apparently quite small. This looked like a great opportunity to see how deep this site's information went. So we tried one: Hobart, Ind. (pop. 25,000, apx.). We'd never heard of Hobart (and Hobart's probably never hear of us). But we found two properties in the 10,000-sq.-ft. to 30,000-sq.-ft. (900-sq.-m. to 2,700-sq.-m.) range.

We were impressed . . . at least we were until we did a little more research on other sites.

Hobart, it turns out, is in extreme north Indiana, much closer to Gary than Bloomington. Not even Little Coach Bobby's devotees are slaphappy enough for that long a drive.

Okay, we thought, maybe we're trying to work on too small a location landscape. So we went big-city with our test drive. We headed for San Francisco, convinced that Little Coach Bobby was just the kind of guy who'd be nuts about wearing flowers in his hair.

But our San Francisco search yielded some puzzling results. Most strikingly, San Francisco wasn't listed among the options that came up for city areas in which to search. Los Angeles, though, was one of the city options that came up in our search for San Francisco property.


Content and Execution Need Work,
But Site Could Still Fly

You probably get the picture here. While Storetrax is unquestionably a solid idea, the site's content and execution have a ways to go. That, though, is one of the enduring facts of the Web-land in which we live today.

Even so, parts of Storetrax drip with potential.

Consider one site section called "Deals." Mind you, there aren't any deals there yet. But Storetrax notes online, "[We] will soon be bringing you the latest deals in retail real estate across the country, as fast as they happen. You'll be able to see at a glance what property has leased or sold, where it is, who bought or leased it and for how much." If that happens, it will draw plenty of eyeballs.

Each property also includes clickoffs for "site plan," "map of area" and "demographics." Those elements, though, are in various states of development.

Judging from out test drive, many of the site plans are apparently already online; they're helpful. The demographics are essentially only an idea right now, but if the quality is good, they'll be a major draw. So will the maps. Our test-drive clicks, though, only brought up blank gray screens that kept vainly trying to load (that is, if there was anything there to load). Perhaps the greatest strength of Storetrax is its venturesome attitude, which made it the first site to stake out a retail-only claim. Getting there first counts for a lot online.

Ultimately, the quality and quantity its online listings will probably determine how well Storetrax does. It's the candy users will come looking for.

The big challenge for Storetrax, then, is building critical mass in its online listings. If that happens and how long it takes to happen remain to be seen. For the moment, though, the potential is here to become an online force in retail.


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