By  on January 13, 2005

NEW YORK — High-end retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are turning to online trunk shows to give sales a boost, as well as predict what the customer will want ahead of time.

“It’s like having a crystal ball,” said Suzanne Silverstein, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for contemporary sportswear and dresses for Saks Fifth Avenue.

The retailer has two trunk shows online right now, one from Nanette Lepore and one from Diane von Furstenberg, which went up this week. More are planned for fall, although they won’t be chosen until buyers see the lines.

The Lepore trunk show offers nine ladylike looks for spring. The 18 items feature romantic prints and folkloric embroideries in black and white with an occasional shot of color. The von Furstenberg trunk show consists of 12 dresses, cut in reproductions of vintage von Furstenberg fabrics.

In December, Neiman Marcus had a von Furstenberg trunk show that featured 17 looks and 28 items, with expected ship dates as far out as mid-May.

Bergdorf Goodman held its first online trunk show before it even had a Web site by partnering with Style.com in 2002. The trunk show consisted of 12 looks and 21 items from Marc Jacobs. It brought in $100,000 in its first four days online. The same merchandise generated $350,000 in orders during a three-day trunk show at the Bergdorf Goodman store on Fifth Avenue.

The advantage of online trunk shows is that they give big retailers time to react. Because orders come in before the merchandise is even shipped by the manufacturer, the merchant has time to place reorders and capture sales that would otherwise be lost, said Silverstein.

Reorders have the potential to boost retailers’ sales by about 5 percent, said Silverstein.

Retailers have traditionally used in-store trunk shows in this way, but only in the designer department. Online trunk shows are broadening the phenomenon to more affordable contemporary lines.

In general, however, only vertically integrated retailers such as Zara have the ability to quickly roll out more fashion-forward styles in-season based on early sales. Department stores have to predict sales well before the season, and generally can’t reorder best-selling styles.In online trunk shows, stores generally have ordered the merchandise before the show goes live, then reorder quickly. That’s different from in-store designer trunk shows, which more frequently include items the stores didn’t buy.

The advantage of online trunk shows for the customer is that they can have an item before others, said Gerald Barnes, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for ready-to-wear and accessories for Neiman Marcus Direct. “Once the vendor ships, we turn it around in a day and it goes right to the customer.”

Bergdorf has not yet held an online trunk show since launching its own e-commerce site this fall, but plans are in the works, said Robert Burke, the store’s senior vice president and fashion director.

Online trunk shows are “a revenue generator…an indicator,” said Lauren Freedman, president of The E-tailing Group, a consulting firm based in Chicago.

In a study released this month, The E-tailing Group found that, of 100 e-commerce vendors surveyed across a wide spectrum of retail categories, 25 percent were offering preorders.

“It’s a no-lose proposition,” she continued. “You get what you need, you get it early on, it makes you feel important. It’s personal shopping gone mad.”

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