By  on April 3, 2008

After a less-than-stellar launch in 2006, Martin + Osa has some newfound confidence.

The brand, which touts "refined casual" styles for relaxed and comfortable dressing but isn't yet widely known, officially launches a Web site for e-commerce today, martinandosa.com, following a few weeks of testing.

"For us, this is very much like relaunching the brand," said Laura Dubin-Wander, who became president of Martin + Osa a year ago, after a management shake-up.

"We are really pleased with the spring assortment in stores now as well as upcoming collections," she continued. "They're very feminine. We're using more color across the board and definitely there's more value at each [price] tier of the assortment. In the women's assortments, we are looking toward a higher penetration of dresses, more feminine blouses, and color has been a huge change." Sweaters, denim, jackets, cashmere, merino wool and cotton also are emphasized.

As far as the Web site, "We feel it's state-of-the-art," Dubin-Wander said.

Previously, Martin + Osa received criticism on several fronts. First, for not being feminine enough. Then, the store rollout was slow initially, but seems steady now, with 20 stores open and a total of 35 expected to be operating by the end of this year. In addition, there was difficulty drawing customers to the stores and getting them to shop.

However, according to Dubin-Wander, "conversions for spring have been very encouraging. Fewer people are walking out of the stores empty-handed."

She said it was too early to project a volume for the Web site, but pointed out that the parent, American Eagle Outfitters, has been successful with e-commerce, noting that AEO Direct, which includes e-commerce and call-in sales, is a $240 million business. AEO had total sales of $3.06 billion last year.

To build awareness, martinandosa.com will be notifying potential customers by e-mail, advertising on the flat-screen televisions inside Martin + Osa stores, tapping the ae.com subscriber database to build its own, conducting online media advertising and a paid search campaign, seeking editorial coverage on fashion blogs and staging a sweepstakes for a $1,000 shopping spree, according to Michael Dupuis, senior director of marketing, AEO Inc.Fred Grover, executive vice president of e-commerce at AEO Inc., added that the entire Martin + Osa collection is available on the new site. "As we move into fall, we plan to add some extended sizes. We do anticipate having some online-only sizing."

He said the Web site will be a "positive force" in building brand recognition and driving traffic to the stores. Martinandosa.com can ship to 42 countries now, and by next month, will ship to more than 50. Free shipping and returns are being offered in the U.S. and Canada, though that could change down the road as volume grows.

With the Web launch, "we open up ourselves to a much greater percentage of the target population that we are going after," Dupuis said. "They happen to be bright and online-savvy. The challenge is how to deliver on a superior user experience. We think we've put something out there that is quite compelling." Martin + Osa targets 28- to 40-year-olds, with the sweet spot at age 34.

The Web site has a drag-and-drop application, which is a feature that enables shoppers to build and layer their own outfits on a mannequin using a select number of women's tops, bottoms and accessories. The company is considering expanding the feature to men's wear. "This notion is to allow visitors to be in control," said Grover.

There is also video technology, helping to illuminate what "refined casual" is all about by showing models moving in the clothes, and a Seasonal Essentials page highlighting key items.

"The site is designed for exploration — but quickly," noted Grover.

"Certainly, by no means do we feel we are launching something that is perfect or finished," added Dupuis. We've got to keep listening to our user base."

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