An increasing number of consumers are doing their shopping online, and the denim industry is hot on their heels.

When it comes to shopping online for denim, the surf’s up. More and more edgy European labels are opening flagships in cyberspace that are virtually turning the tide on how customers buy jeans.

“It’s a huge segment, which is seeing continuous growth,” says Vincent Stuhlen, digital marketing manager of Levi Strauss Europe, who is gearing up for the October launch of the firm’s first e-commerce site in Europe.

“It’s an essential aspect of our future retail strategy,” agrees Antonio Gnocchini, European marketing director of VF Corp.’s Lee Europe.

By ensuring top-notch customer service, flexible return policies and savvy sizing methods, as well as exclusive product ranges, European fashion firms are getting the hang of tuning into a new wave of online shoppers whose pockets are getting deeper.

According to market research firm Forrester Research Inc., by 2011, the number of Europeans shopping online will increase by 76 percent. Meanwhile, online retail sales throughout Europe will more than double between 2006 and 2011, from 102 billion euros, or $145 billion at current exchange, to 263 billion euros, or $374 billion, in 2011.

“It is generally held that 8 percent of the total apparel sales in 2011 will derive from online revenues, double the amount of today,” says Levi’s Stuhlen. “We expect sales from our new site to be in line with that figure, at the least.”

And how. Levi’s Europe launched its pilot site in the U.K. early this year and has seen “double-digit growth month after month,” even with the absence of a marketing push. Dubbed eu.levi.com, the most recent version will go live in October and be available to shoppers in the U.K., France and Germany. Other European countries are expected to be added to that list early next year.

While recent market reports warn that online sales could slow due to an increased number of payment frauds, fashion brands launching e-commerce sites say they are taking the necessary precautions.

“Although it is a concern for many consumers, the fear of payment fraud is not stopping Internet sales from growing,” says Stuhlen, who added Levi’s will apply the best security standards for online payments through its site.

“Consumers will be able to shop by collection or by style, select classics or browse through our latest innovations and zoom in on product details,” he continues, noting that the site’s collections include Levi’s Red Tab and Levi’s Engineered Jeans, as well as Levi’s Blue. Online limited editions are also in the works for next year.

While Internet shopping may save a trip to a brick-and-mortar location, “click-and-mortar” stores lack one key element – changing rooms.

“Fit is an essential component in a purchase decision,” says Stuhlen, explaining that Levi’s is working on an exclusive, interactive style and fit guide for spring that should help “Internauts” find the perfect fit of jeans without having to try them on.

Additionally, Stuhlen believes the key to clinching a sale online is efficient customer relations, painless returns and immediate shipments.

“We are paying considerable attention to our deliveries and return policies, tracking satisfaction and levels of marketing,” says Stuhlen. He says Levi’s Europe has even opened a new call center to cater to Internet purchases.

Selling jeans online can greatly extend a brand’s distribution reach and exposure. “It’s a great way to make the whole collection available to people who don’t live in close proximity to distributors,” says Mikael Schiller, president of Stockholm’s Acne Jeans, which launched its e-commerce site in November 2006 and since has noted “accelerated” growth of online sales and greater international brand recognition. “It’s the ideal complement to multibrand shops and our own concept stores.”

“It is a fantastic opportunity to serve consumers on a much more global basis, but it is also a key corporate strategy to broaden our international retail network,” agrees Martin Sjöström, chief executive officer of Stockholm-based Whyred. The contemporary fashion label boasting an extensive denim collection is launching its e-commerce site in October. Sjöström says he figured that, after seeing so much interest stem from Whyred’s Web site, which, to him, was a paradox “because you are showing something customers can’t buy,” an e-tail site made a lot of sense. To address the sizing issue, Sjöström says Whyred’s Web site will list exact measurements and detailed explanations of its fits.

In addition to expanding retail reach and brand exposure, e-commerce sites are proving crucial for tracking consumer spending. “We use it as a tool for ourselves – it is the best tracking system and is the best way to learn what visitors are interested in,” says Sjöström.

“It is an incredible tool in order to understand who is buying the label,” agrees Brice Partouche, the drummer turned- designer of Paris-based denim label April 77.

Partouche, who is fine-tuning the details for the launch of his e-commerce site, april77market.com, in January, is no newcomer to the Web. Last year, April 77 launched a blog to link customers with similar cultural interests, including music.

“The blog helped us to build a relationship with the consumer,” says Partouche. “It created a community where bloggers became part of the marketing.” For April 77’s online store, Partouche is taking the exclusive route. “We are not going to sell the entire collection – only special products and limited editions, such as collaborations with artists and organizations,” he says.

For the site’s launch, April 77 teamed with a music label to create a line of T-shirts. Limited edition April 77 jeans will be on offer exclusively for online shoppers.

Many jeans brand executives agree that positive reaction to multibrand retailers, such as Eluxury.com, Net-a-porter.com and LaGarconne.com, as well as online catalogues, encouraged plans for their own online stores.

Multibrand retailers were among the first to sell denim online, and they still generate a lather of excitement.

“The company is increasing 100 percent year on- year,” says Da Kim, co-owner of the Connecticut based high-end online retailer LaGarconne, which he founded with his wife, Kris, in 2005.

“Our customers are very denim-savvy. They know exactly what size they need because usually they already own a pair – they go online to order the same style in a different wash,” explains Kris Kim, who sells brands such as Acne Jeans, Superfine, 18th Amendment and Whyred. “You have to be careful with denim. You have to get it just right in terms of image, wash and colors.”

Meanwhile, scores of brands in Europe are launching business to- business e-commerce sites. Lee Europe, for example, will start up its business-to-business site in the spring.

“We definitely believe it is an extremely important way of servicing the client – it will ultimately save a lot of time on both sides,” says Lee Europe’s Gnocchini. He says the brand is looking to launch its first e-commerce site in 2009. “E-commerce has huge potential at Lee. It delivers a clearer message about the brand and simultaneously increases its sales.”

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