By  on October 3, 2011

Some self-expression, a sense of style and salesmanship: That’s what it takes to become a “stylepreneur” on StyleOwner, the latest in social selling online.

StyleOwner launches this week, inviting bloggers, stylists and fashionistas to create their own online fashion boutique: they name it, customize its look and select the merchandise. They can then market their shop to their circle of friends and family via blogs, e-mail and social network sites like Facebook and Twitter and operate online like personal shoppers, earning a commission off each item they sell.

The challenge of the Web, particularly the e-commerce component, is that it’s largely impersonal. Brands and retailers have been grappling with how to generate greater followings and higher revenues through all viral networking.

StyleOwner, according to founder and chief executive officer Joel Weingarten, “is about making the Web shopping experience more personal, collaborative and engaging. The most effective marketing tool is a recommendation or approval of a friend. That’s the essence and effectiveness of StyleOwner.”

“We all want to self-express on the Web and we all want to shop with our best girlfriends or boyfriends,” added Tracy Gardner, the former president of J. Crew who has become a partner and member of the board at StyleOwner.

Social selling via the Internet is gaining momentum among merchants, designers, the Web community and techies, like Weingarten, who developed search-and-rescue robots for the Department of Defense and taught robotics at the University of Pennsylvania. Weingarten came up with the idea and technology for StyleOwner around the time others were thinking along the same lines. In fact, last month Shop My Label was launched, as reported by WWD. It’s another Web site for social selling online, similar to StyleOwner. Both sites enable Web-types to sell fashion to friends via the Internet, without any investment or technical Web expertise required. There’s also some overlap in what’s offered. Saks Fifth Avenue merchandise is being offered on the two sites, reflecting the luxury chain’s keen interest in exploring social selling.

One difference between the two sites is that StyleOwner has an integrated shopping cart so shoppers are never redirected and can browse and complete their transactions from all the brands and retailers in one “seamless” process. Shop My Label, at least initially, is not a one-step process. For buying any item provided by Saks, a separate checkout through saks.com is required, though Shop My Label says that will change in three months and that there’s a single checkout on selections from all other brands participating.

Another difference is that StyleOwner offers its shopkeepers 10 percent commissions off sales, while Shop My Label offers 5 percent. Shop My Label gets up to 15 percent commission per item sold. StyleOwner declined to specify its cut, which would vary depending on the retailer and brand.

With StyleOwner, shopkeepers select from one of 50 templates with different aesthetics, ranging from classic to surfer girl, that set the mood and look of a boutique. In addition to reflecting a fashion point of view, a boutique can be themed around a category, such as denim, or a lifestyle, such as vacationing in the Mediterranean or in the Hamptons. Shops can be further individualized with different music, colors, fonts and backdrops.

The shopkeepers “curate” items (up to 500) are selected from a “master closet” of brands and retailers selling clothing, accessories, cosmetics and fragrance, assembled by StyleOwner. So far, the closet contains Nordstrom, Singer 22, John Hardy, Alexis Bittar, Milly, Tracy Reese, Feed and Vapour Beauty, as well as Saks. The brands and retailers supply the merchandise photos and descriptions and control the pricing.

“In 15 minutes you can have a fully functioning fashion Web store and have a lot of fun with it,” Weingarten said. “Social networking is huge. The best marketer is a recommendation from a trusted source.”

StyleOwner is initially opening with up to 1,000 shops, but could have many more in the future. At the outset, there will be 30 fashion bloggers with stores, including Man Repeller, Aly Walansky and Keiko Lynn. Style.com is also creating a store, and there are a few dozen college students recruited by Weingarten to open stores as well. There are also philanthropies such as Publicolor, The National Lymphoma Foundation, Women In Need and the Make-a-Wish Foundation launching sites to help their causes. Weingarten said he wanted to limit the total field for the launch, to keep things manageable.

He said sales generated through shops created via StyleOwner would be incremental to those brands and retailers supplying merchandise, rather than cannibalistic. But they will know one way or the other soon enough, with inventory and sales data supplied by StyleOwner to the brands and retailers in real time.

“It’s a new selling frontier,” said Saks Inc. chairman and ceo Stephen I. Sadove. “We believe that connecting with customers online is essential and that social selling represents growth for saks.com.”

Others also see the potential, notably some prominent StyleOwner investors. They include Bob Pittman, the founder of MTV, who has also been the ceo of AOL Networks, Six Flags Theme Parks, Century 21 Real Estate and Time Warner Enterprises; Kristoffer Mack, senior managing director of Focus Capital Group; Forerunner Ventures, which invests in brands, social and mobile e-commerce; Accel Partners, a top technology venture capitalist firm, and Andy Dunn, co-founder of the Bonobos online men’s retailer. Jordana Silver, formerly with Michael Kors, serves as StyleOwner’s president.

“StyleOwner will be a game-changer by defining social selling,” Pittman said. “It has the potential to create a new category that will change the future landscape of e-commerce.”

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