By  on April 22, 2011

Every day at noon, across America, calls go unreturned, meetings unscheduled. Millions of young women with high disposable incomes stop whatever they’re doing to shop.

Their destination?

Flash-sale Web sites, members-only online sample sales, where everything from designer blouses to boutique hotels in Costa Rica are offered up at discounted prices for a limited amount of time.

Now almost five years old, the format has emerged from the ashes of the recession as a viable and thriving channel that is fundamentally altering the retail landscape and consumer behavior.

“These sites have stirred consumer interest and have changed the way people plan their days,” says Andrea Davey, executive vice president of marketing for P&G Prestige. “When I’ve spent time with consumers, people schedule their day to avoid meetings at noon so they can get online and see what’s on these sites.”

Nordstrom recognized the importance of the sector, which is estimated to have sales of $1 billion and growing, when it bought one of the leading sites—HauteLook—for $270 million in late February.

High-end fashion, accessories and travel brands have fl ocked to the sites. But despite hard-core wooing by the four major players, many big beauty brands continue to balk.

Today, the four major players in the flash sales arena are Gilt Groupe, HauteLook, Ideeli and RueLaLa. Gilt, which has the reputation of being the most “luxe” of the four, has about three million members, described by Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, founder and chief merchandising officer, as in their “mid-20s to mid-30s, largely urban, highly educated, with 69 percent earning over $100,000.” Sales typically last 36 hours, and discounts go up to 70 percent. Gilt has seven major category tabs on its Web site, including men’s, women’s, children’s, home, gift, jet-setter and city, the latter local-based sales centered on restaurants, spa and salon services and the like.

HauteLook claims about 4.5 million members, and adds about 10,000 members a day, according to founder and chief executive officer Adam Bernhard. Its consumer base is about 90 percent women, 25 to 40 years old, with a household income of $75,000 a year. HauteLook, which sells 11 categories, is the only one of the big four where beauty has a permanent tab on the homepage.

Ideeli’s ceo and founder Paul Hurley breaks down its membership of four million, 98 percent of whom are women, into two key demographics: A younger customer in her late-20s to mid-30s, and an older audience that is more conservative. The average household income of its membership is $100,000, and it, too, traffics in men’s, women’s, kids’, home, travel and experiences.

RueLaLa has 3.2 million members, and counts as its points of differentiation the fact that its sales start at 11 a.m., rather than noon, and its full-size run on products, according to Stacey Santo, vice president of brand partner marketing. Despite their differences in brand merchandising philosophies, what all of the sites have in common is the thrill of the hunt. The average sale lasts for 36 to 48 hours, with discounts ranging from 15 to 80 percent. That sense of urgency has resulted in an incredibly strong emotional connection with consumers. “This format resonates with customers because the discovery-based way of shopping is very exciting,” says Bernhard. “Internet-based shopping is based on the fact that you know what you want, you enter it in search and then you see your options. But for women who love to shop, part of the excitement is going to a store and saying, ‘What am I going to see today?’ This model combines intent-based shopping with discovery. Every night, we remerchandise our entire store, so that every morning when you come, it’s a different experience.”

Wendy Liebmann, retail analyst and ceo of WSL Strategic Retail, agrees. “Flash sites are another tool that shoppers are comfortable adding to their arsenal of, ‘how do I get the best value and great price?’ They also enable shoppers to become emotionally engaged in the shopping experience without having to walk into a store. Value in the pricing standpoint, in the emotional connections standpoint and in the accessibility—those three components make flashsale sites very compelling for people.”

Moreover, Liebmann says her anecdotal research shows that most people who are engaged in the category don’t just look at one site, they look at a number of them.

For seasonal businesses like fashion and accessories, when you’re “in” until you’re not, the model makes perfect sense. But for beauty, a category built on innovation, education and replenishment, the fit is not so neat. And when it comes to emerging retail formats, beauty has never been a category that could be called an early adapter.

“The pure-play flash-sale sites have the challenge that their model is about the discount, and that fl ies counter to what the national beauty brands want to deliver,” says Liebmann. “At the same time, this is a new channel where you can reach [consumers] on an everyday basis. It’s an opportunity, but a challenging opportunity.”

“Consumers are expecting a superior brand experience on their time, and they are very open to interfacing with different brands in different ways,” agrees Claudia Poccia, ceo of Gurwitch Products. “They are deciding how they are going to interface with the brand, and to continually deliver that satisfaction to consumers is more and more important. But you have to be mindful of where you’re going to play and what makes sense for your brand.”

Therein lies the rub: On the one hand, the millionplus membership bases are certainly attractive. On the other hand, no major brand is willing to go mano a mano with its traditional retail distribution base and offer a straight discount on a current product.

“Brands are incredibly sensitive about anything that provides a whiff of discount,” acknowledges Hurley. “But there are ways to manage that expectation with consumers and protect the perception of full-price and, at the same time, the benefits on the marketing side are enormous. When we were smaller, we were nice to have, but now we have an enormous audience.

“The retail channel in general is slow growth,” Hurley continues. “How are you going to post big growth? Online. We understand that just selling units isn’t compelling. It’s the measured marketing value that is compelling. This company sent me 200,000 clicks a year that cost $3 apiece—that is measurable value. We think that’s the future of retail, the melding of demand creation, which the best brickandmortar beauty counters do. It’s expensive and hard to scale, but when it’s done right, you can make a customer for life. How do you do that on a massive scale online? That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Indeed, flash-sale sites have become adept at creating initiatives to drive traffi c beyond saving money. “We’re getting quite savvy in personalization,” says Gilt’s Wilson. “If a brand doesn’t want to be made available to our entire membership, we can put together programs where they specifically target a relevant customer. We come up with different franchises, such as a bridal event, where it makes sense to promote wellness, fitness, detox and dieting, for example. We’re adding a lot of new features like video, which is very helpful for beauty.”

In response to the d-word—discounting—most flash-sale executives point out the following: That sales generally only last two days and that because only members have access to the sites, Google’s spiders can’t find their pricing and disseminate it online.

Despite widespread resistance in beauty, there have been converts, from brands who view fl ash sites as a convenient way to unload end-of-season merchandise to those who have used them as customer recruitment tools with site-specific value offers. “I really like them” says Jill Scalamandre, chief marketing officer of Chrysallis, who has staged sales of the company’s StriVectin brand on Gilt and HauteLook. “I treat them like a channel. They are a great place to raise awareness with a very targeted efficient consumer reach. They have foot traffic and their consumer profile is very engaged in beauty and fashion. We treat it as an opportunity to bring in new users and offer them an incentive with a gift-with-purchase, a bundle versus a straight discount.” For example, on a recent sale on Gilt, the brand offered its core 5-oz. StriVectin-SD cream with two 0.25-oz. SD Eye Concentrate for Wrinkle tubes at a price of $135. On sephora.com and macys.com, the product costs $135 on its own. Products that do have a more obvious discount, such as HS Hydro-Thermal Deep Wrinkle Serum, which was $122.40 on Gilt and $153 at Sephora and Macy’s, are in the process of being transitioned out of the market, says Scalamandre, who notes that the selling model for flash-sale sites is similar to that used for TV selling.

“You need a channel strategy,” she says, “against flash-sale sites, TV, specialty and department stores. How do you bring value to each of those channels and offer a different experience? If you were doing straight discounting, it’s a tricky situation and your retail partners won’t be happy. Here, it’s about offering value without a straight discount. We have a great business on QVC,” she continues, “where we mix up the assortment and sizes so that you’re getting something different. With flashsale sites, we’re doing the same thing.”

Caroline Pieper-Vogt, the ceo of Fusion Beauty, has also found targeted success with flash-sale sites. “We see it as an enhancement, because it allows us not only to get our brand identity and message out there to new consumers, but it helps us balance inventories and focus on products that we want to drive,” she says. “It’s interesting. It’s definitely calculated. You have to be thoughtful about when and how you do it and how it mixes with the your overall strategy.”

The consumer is driving the growth of such sites, points out Pieper-Vogt, noting, “She really likes luxury, but she loves to get a value and feel like she’s part of the club.”Flash-sale sites have also proved extraordinarily effective at selling services. “These guys are meeting a need that existing channels didn’t do,” says Mike Indursky, president of Bliss World Inc. “This year, we thought about the channel strategically, at the beginning of our planning, asking ourselves, ‘What role can it play?’”

The answer was to use flash sales as a way of selling in-spa services that drive people to buy products. Indursky was inspired by the success of Helmut Lang on Gilt, which used the channel to launch a clothing collection at full price, creating a value proposition for Gilt’s members that centered on having something first rather than getting a discount. “There are ways to give value that aren’t just dollars off,” says Indursky, noting Lang’s exclusive launch was of high value to the fashionista shopper who frequents Gilt. “The channel has been a great way for us to launch services, drive awareness and get people into our spas,” he says. “We find that the customer doesn’t just buy the service, she goes back to retail and buys the product. So we’re driving retail by offering services on our flash sites.”

That’s not to say Bliss doesn’t discount—Indursky says the services being sold on Gilt, such as waxing or laser hair removal, sell on average for 30 percent off—but that the payoff is more than worth it. “For us to use their marketing muscle to help tell the world or a city about this wonderful service is a powerful way to get our message across and drive awareness.”

For his part, Urban Decay’s worldwide general manager, Tim Warner, has utilized the channel primarily as an off-price opportunity. “It’s not a core strategy to sell more product,” he says. “We deploy it to sell off-price products that no longer have distribution with our normal retailers.” Urban Decay typically does about three sales a year, Warner says, with a minimum of 500 units per stockkeeping unit. Discounts are usually in the 50 to 80 percent off range. (The higher the discount, the better the sell-through, says Warner.) “If I can’t sell it, I have to destroy it,” he points out, “so any way I can sell it is positive to my cash flow.”

To be sure, the numbers can get quite large—according to Bernhard, HauteLook sold 100,000 Urban Decay pieces in four hours.

Despite numbers like that, Bernhard is well aware of the challenges going forward. Key among them is continuing to attract a fresh influx of brands to the channel. “The demand for great brands at great prices is insatiable,” he says, when asked what keeps him up at night. “So our ability to continue to secure the best brands in the industry in all of the different categories is what I think about.”

Thanks to its recent acquisition by Nordstrom, largely considered one of the most adept retailers in America when it comes to integrated marketing, that’s a challenge HauteLook is likely to handle with equanimity. But as all retailers become better at managing postrecession inventories or decide to get into the flash-sale business for themselves (as Neiman Marcus has done), the future of the pure-play sites comes into question. “The fi rst to market advantage was hugely valuable,” says Liebmann, “but what’s to stop the people with the goods or with the shoppers from doing it themselves?” she asks. “Is this a place where multibranded companies play in ways they’ve never done before? Are they thinking this is a new world of opportunity? Or ick! Get away from us? Or is this an idea they can poach? That’s the most interesting thing going forward.”

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