PARIS — In France, distance seems to be making the heart grow fonder — for fashion.

After several years of sliding sales, long-distance retailers in France are enjoying a sudden renaissance.

Statistics just released for 2002 show the industry posted a 2.7 percent across-the-board gain. For its part, apparel gained 5.8 percent, significantly outpacing the 1.6 percent overall advance in apparel sales in France. Overall catalog sales totaled some $10 billion in France last year, with sales of apparel counting for some 40 percent of the total. (Dollar figures have been converted from the euro at current exchange.)

Executives here attributed the turnaround to a new emphasis on fashion in their books and gains made in online shopping as a greater percentage of French households became Internet-equipped.

“A lot of the industry’s problems date to the introduction of the euro,” said Marc Olivier, secretary general of the Federation of Mail Order Companies, or FEVAD. “Catalogs dropped investment in anticipation of the problems [the euro] could cause. And consumers were troubled at first. They waited to buy to see what the euro would mean.”

Now, however, consumers have grown more comfortable with the EU’s single currency, asserted Olivier. “But that’s not the only reason the companies have made strides forward. They’ve diversified their merchandise and built upon the wonderful tool that is the Internet.”

On the product front, Trois Suisses has tapped Loulou de la Falaise and Martine Sitbon to create minicollections for its upcoming fall catalog. Meanwhile, La Redoute, owned by retail and luxury conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, has turned to Viktor & Rolf, shoemaker Michel Vivien, and moderate designers Bali Barrett, Vanessa Bruno and Antik Batik to do capsule collections for its fall book. Although designed by high-fashion names, the collections retail for about $100 for a jacket and $60 for a pair of trousers.

“We’ve made a big effort to become more trendy,” said Xavier Desjobert, president of Trois Suisses. “Fashion is in fashion. And we’ve aimed at getting younger.”

At La Redoute, president Paul Delaoutresaid the company has revolutionized its thinking. “We now think of ourselves as a fashion house,” he said. “We need to be up with the trends, to be setting the trends. A couple of years ago, we thought the competition was the other mail-order books. Today, we know that our competition comes across all distribution channels. We no longer consider ourselves a catalog. We think of ourselves as retailers who compete with all of the other stores.”The new strategy seems to be paying off. Delaoutre said Redoute’s sales through March climbed 18 percent compared with the same period last year. All of that comes in a difficult retailing environment that has suffered from a drastic drop in tourism and the strong euro.

But even if catalogers here have shifted their focus to fashion, they face several challenges. Unlike cheap-chic retailers such as Hennes & Mauritz and Zara, which fill their stores with new merchandise every six weeks, they must finalize collections months in advance of the publication of their catalogs, which typically have a six-month seasonal shelf life.

The Internet has helped change that reality, with catalogers slowly introducing more last-minute items to their easily updated Web pages. Catalogers are also holding back more of their fashion pages until the last possible minute to assure that they have bet on the right trends.

La Redoute has revamped its design team and put it on a mission to keep pace with the fast-fashion chains. Trois Suisses, for its part, this fall plans to introduce a mini-fashion catalog every three months focused on the hottest trends.

“There’s no question that speed is now the name of the game,” said Desjobert. “We’re limited in some ways as a catalog retailer, but we have to learn to turn our handicaps into an advantage.”

The Internet is one advantage that catalogers here have found the most promising. La Redoute, which is the second-largest e-commerce site in France after the SNCF rail service, saw online sales advance 6 percent last year. Delaoutre projects an 11 percent gain for 2003.

Overall, PPR’s mail order division, Redcats, which also counts Brylane and Chadwick’s in the U.S. among its brands, said Internet sales accounted for 9.5 percent of sales in 2002.

“Catalogers have made big investments in new technology and have learned how to give the Internet more added value,” said Olivier. “They’ve introduced virtual models and they have opened more customer-service call centers to complement their sites.”

Olivier said the Internet has also brought younger clients to the catalogs in France who formerly spurned them in favor of the traditional shopping experience.Achieving this was a long learning curve. At first, catalog operators here considered the Internet a panacea. At the height of the Internet craze, many thought all they had to do was throw up pages and the money would come flooding in.

On the contrary, the Internet proved a difficult tool to master. Many shoppers were poorly equipped technologically to view pages, not having the required sophisticated software on their home terminals. But as technology has become more widespread and more households become outfitted with high-speed linkups, Internet shopping has begun to bear fruit.

Likewise, catalogers have shifted to treating the Internet as another form of so-called “retail-tainment,” or shopping as entertainment, increasing the content of their pages to include beauty and fashion tips, for example.

“Our Internet clientele is young and urban,” said Desjobert. “When they log onto our site, they are looking for a shopping experience. It has to offer things that a store experience can’t. The service has to be different. It has to entertain them in different ways.”

Delaoutre said La Redoute has found that many of its online shoppers place their orders only after consulting the catalog.

“The standard knowledge now is that Internet on its own is not an effective tool,” he said. “Or at least it is only an effective tool in very isolated cases. For us, we need to have a great site and a great catalog to complement it.”

Added Desjobert, “We’ve had to invest a lot in telephone call centers as well. The Internet needs to be supported with various services before it becomes effective.”

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