My Amazon search was specific: I wanted an inexpensive, waterproof, Bluetooth-enabled, rechargeable speaker, so that I could listen to podcasts in the shower. I expected many options. Instead, I got one: some black-and-green gadget called Hipe. Was that the brand name, or the model? The customer reviewers didn’t seem to know, but they all agreed: Whatever Hipe is—and all it had to its name was this speaker and a crappy website with a customer-service email address—the product does work. And if you have any questions, some guy named Sam responds by email. I’ve spent $69.99 on shakier propositions. I bought it right away.
The speaker worked as advertised, but I had a question about connectivity. So I emailed Hipe, and, sure enough, Sam replied: “This is the answer I got from China, does this help at all?” What followed was a broken-English response that, after some parsing, was, in fact, helpful. But now Hipe made even less sense: Who was behind it? I Googled around and connected it to a New Jersey company called C&A Marketing, then emailed Sam to ask how the two were related. His reply: “?”
I badgered. I pled. I finally talked Sam into meeting with me, and we set a date, but then he quickly retracted and put me in touch with a marketing guy, who put me in touch with a publicist, who invited me to a photography trade show in Manhattan called PhotoPlus and gave me these instructions: Come to the Polaroid stand and ask for Chaim.Pikarski, right, and two of his buyers, in their Amazon monitoring room
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.