DENIM FIRMS TAKE INTERNET SITES TO NEW LEVELS

Byline: Melanie Kletter

NEW YORK — Many jeanswear makers are embracing the Internet as a vehicle with which to show off their latest styles and build their brands.
For several companies, the Internet is not just a place to show pictures of product. Levi Strauss & Co., Polo Jeans Co., Todd Oldham and Diesel, among others, have developed highly sophisticated interactive sites and are using them to sell apparel, create databases, and offer customized online experiences.
“At Diesel, we ask for our users’ e-mail account and then we will do things like send out additional sale coupons via e-mail,” said Mike Trombino, Diesel’s Internet adviser.
At Levi Strauss, one of the first apparel firms to launch online selling, cyberspace sales have grown since last November’s debut, but the company declined to break out sales figures.
“We are very encouraged by the results of our online store,” said Kevin McSpadden, Levi’s former director of e-commerce marketing, in an interview shortly before he left the company. “Since we launched we have seen significant trends in the way people come in to buy and use it to fulfill a certain shopping need.”
Fashion-forward products such as boot-cut denim have been popular on the site, he noted.
Many experts say a web site is a necessity. Irma Zandl of the Zandl Group, a trend-research company, said that many people, especially teenagers, have now come to expect that companies will have a web site.
“The Internet is a key communications tool that young people are using,” she said. “It is such a part of their lives now.”
Spencer Rosenheck, vice president of sales and marketing at LEI, concurred.
“We feel it is absolutely essential to be on the web for brand-building purposes, especially in the junior market,” he said. “The web is a great vehicle to reach teenagers, to communicate with them in their comfort zone and their turf.”
Polo Jeans and Todd Oldham, two brands produced by Jones Apparel Group’s Sun Apparel division, recently launched web sites.
The Polo Jeans site, developed in partnership with Internet music network SonicNet, is titled “Way Up Front,” to suggest that it offers a front-row view of the worlds of music, travel, style and entertainment. Some of the content elements are updated several times a week, while links and visuals are updated weekly and monthly, according to a company spokesman.
Polo noted that having a web site will enable the company to speak directly to its target customer because that customer is online specifically to find information or to directly purchase Polo Jean’s products.
Todd Oldham’s site, which is scheduled to begin e-commerce next spring, contains unique content, of which about 85 percent is exclusive to cyberspace. Oldham’s site features animation as well as games, information, chat rooms, links to other sites and “rewards” such as “gift-with-click” promotions. In addition, users can customize many aspects of the site.
Candie’s Inc., which owns Bongo Jeans, now operates a smaller online operation called a “microsite,” and sites for both Candie’s and Bongo Jeans will debut later this month, said David Conn, vice president of marketing. One recent attraction on the site was a provocative commercial with actress Alyssa Milano. The commercial was banned by the WB network due to its sexy nature, and after the ban made headlines, many users rushed to the web site to see the commercial.
Conn said Candie’s new site will differ from other sites in that it will be more of an online community and will include a variety of interactive sections. Content will change on a daily basis, and the site will constantly offer fresh surveys. Inspiration for Candie’s new site came from such cutting-edge sites as bolt.com and chickclick.com, which include a host of interactive sections, including opinion polls, chat rooms and message boards.
“If you look at what other companies are doing with their sites, many look alike,” Conn commented. “But that doesn’t build on the strength of the medium. Its strength is in interactivity. The way we look at it, we want to learn more about our consumer, and the Internet is a terrific place to do that. We are going to make our site a fun and entertaining place where our users can hang out.”
LEI, the up-and-coming junior jeanswear firm, will launch its web site under its full name next Wednesday. The first phase of the site will consist of information about LEI and its licenses, as well as events the company sponsors. In addition, there will likely be links to its retail and marketing partners, such as Columbia Records. The second phase might include e-commerce, but that is still a matter of internal debate, according to Rosenheck.
“E-commerce is a much bigger commitment financially, and it needs to be handled delicately so as not to disrupt our normal retail channels,” he said. “At this point we think it is more important to use our site as a brand-building tool.”
LEI is not alone in hesitating to start selling in cyberspace. While many denim companies are using the web to build their brand, when it comes to e-commerce, some have decided to take their time. They cite a variety of reasons why, including the inevitable competition with their retail customers and costs associated with setting up fulfillment, delivery and customer service departments.
While a handful of firms do offer online selling — Levi Strauss & Co., Guess and Paris Blues, for example — others, such as Diesel and Bongo Jeans do not.
Diesel currently has a web site, and is selling products in the U.K. through its virtual store, but at this time, the firm has delayed its plans for e-commerce in this country.
“E-commerce is not only a big financial burden for us, it constantly has to be updated,” said Diesel’s Trombino. “Also, we currently have tight distribution, and we want to have a lot of control over what is happening.”
The Polo spokesman said the company does not plan to add e-commerce because the site is being used as “special programming” for branding and entertainment.
According to Zandl, it is good news that many jeanswear firms aren’t rushing too quickly to sell in cyberspace.
“Too many companies are looking at the web and at e-commerce as a way to salvage their business,” Zandl said. “I feel very strongly that everybody has to have a web site, but that you really have to have very minimal expectations of what it is going to do. What alarms me is when people sound as though the Internet is the only place people are going to shop. Our research shows that teens are not buying clothes over the Internet. They say things like, ‘If I can’t try it, I won’t buy it.”‘
Nevertheless, e-commerce goes on.
Candie’s said it is working on a deal for e-commerce with some established companies, but that will not be in place for at least six months. It will be partnering with an established company due, in part, to the “tremendous investments” that have to be made in back-end technology, servers and fulfillment, said Conn, who declined to identify the companies with whom Candie’s might be talking.
“You have to start to figure out e-commerce,” he said. “If you don’t, you are missing a chance to capture a lot of digital retailing.”
Most denim firms say they plan to promote their web sites as part of their traditional print and TV campaigns.
Levi’s is one of them. The site will be mentioned in the company’s fall campaigns on television and in outdoor advertising, McSpadden said. In addition, there will be some online banner ads on other web sites.
Polo also plans to include its web site in its print ads and collateral material in stores.