Overstock.com and Worldstock

Harvard Business School


In mid-2006, Overstock.com faced a daunting set of business challenges. Founded in 1999 as an online "closeout" retailer, the $800 million company had more than 15 million unique visitors a month, 10 million life-to-date customers, and greater than 500,000 active SKUs in roughly 20 product categories. However, while it had come within one half of a percent, the firm had yet to realize an annual profit. Moreover, the tremendous growth that had enabled the company to become on online shopping giant appeared to be slowing at an alarming rate. At least partly as a result of the challenges facing the core business, Worldstock, the company's socially responsible initiative, was also in jeopardy. Started by CEO Patrick Byrne in 2001, the division leveraged the firm's infrastructure to market handicrafts produced by third-world artisans to the mainstream U.S. retail market via a designated portal on the Overstock.com website. However, working with third world artisans turned out to be significantly more expensive than originally anticipated. By mid-2006, Worldstock's "self-sustaining" model for economic development was projected to contribute nearly $1 million to the company's losses that year. Although most managers were cautious about criticizing the CEO's "pet project," a few felt the company had to address (what they saw as) the negative the impact that Worldstock was having on Overstock's financial performance. As a result, all those committed to the Worldstock model, from CEO Byrne to Division Manager Angela Ramirez, faced the thorny questions about how to balance these new fiscal imperatives with the group's philanthropic and social objectives. While no one wanted to openly acknowledge it, some stakeholders wondered if Worldstock might eventually be shut down or spun off if the situation did not improve.
Learning objective: The objectives of this case are to: Explore the advantages and disadvantages of embedding a socially responsible initiative within a for-profit company. Evaluate the sustainability of the Worldstock model.



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