Visuality, a simple Web-based e-mail program with pictures, is increasing sales for fashion brands and changing how they sell.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

An e-mail with a photo of every item a retailer has purchased and pictures of suggested updates and new items can easily replace more cumbersome spreadsheets, reports and attachments.

“Someone who is absolutely at the kindergarten level of Internet use just opens it up,” said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller. “You send them an e-mail, and there’s a message with the pictures. One phone call and you’re doing business.”

“It definitely has affected our bottom line with incremental sales,” said Annette Mathieu, president of sales and marketing for Cynthia Steffe.

Some companies use Visuality to make an initial contact; others rely on it to show established customers new styles and fabrics. Department stores like receiving the e-mails with all the style information connected to a visual, said users. Brands said the software makes it easier for them to manage communications with many smaller accounts, such as boutiques.

It can also help retailers that are cutting costs because of the economy, said Mathieu. “People are not traveling as much, and this gives them the tool to see it first hand in the best light possible and feel it out without having physical samples there or traveling to New York,” she said.

When a user opens a Visuality e-mail, she is actually accessing a private Web page with its own address, or URL — it just looks like an e-mail. The software is secure, and users say there is no discernible delay.

While some have called the program social networking software, that is a misnomer. It is a hosted e-mail-groupware service, and part of a much bigger trend known as cloud computing., Google Docs, Yahoo mail, Flickr and YouTube are other examples of cloud computing. The applications and data reside in the “sky” and can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Visuality charges a monthly fee of $50 to $300 a person, depending on the number of users. An initial startup fee is $2,500, and the company’s software interfaces with typical fashion industry systems such as AS/400 servers and formats such as U4ia, Photoshop and Illustrator.

Visuality customers install a small piece of software on their computers and can work locally; communications back and forth are hosted. In the first quarter of 2010, the company plans to make the software fully hosted, including the creation of e-mails. In the second quarter, the company will add e-commerce, said co-founder and chief executive officer Joe Shohfi, so clients can buy goods without leaving the e-mail.

Shohfi is a second-generation garment industry veteran with manufacturing and retail experience. He managed Gerber Technology’s product life cycle management business (then known as product data management) for three years before starting Visuality.

“I saw an opportunity for a game changer: being able to share visual information in this visually driven industry — and nobody was really addressing it,” he said.

The company is nine years old and started shipping Visuality in 2005. It has about 100 customers, including Diesel, Hanes, Carole Hochman Group, Gap and American Eagle.

Marissa Collections in Naples, Fla., which carries lines such as Valentino and Alberta Ferretti, has been using the software to handle clienteling communications with customers.

Cynthia Steffe uses the software to e-mail about best-selling styles, anything they’re recutting, and to send out look books and line sheets.

“We shoot them a Visuality, and they literally call us up and order,” said Mathieu. “We e-mail about market appointments, and we have been able to service them in-season without having to make a showroom appointment.” E-mails can be blasted out to groups of press and customers or customized.

“We can customize based on a store’s selection,” she said. “They can see what they’ve purchased, and we can update items and suggest other items.”

At Nicole Miller, the software is useful for reorders.

“It doesn’t substitute for the initial sale,” said Konheim. “The person has to get your stuff, see what the fabric is like, what the fit is, but the second you have an established customer, what a pleasure it is for us and them to say we sold out of style 4321 and we don’t have that anymore, but we have style xxx and the same fabric in a different color and pattern. They say, ‘What’s the pattern look like?’ We say, ‘Here, we’ll send it to you,’ it looks great, and they order it.”