Byline: Teena Hammond / With contributions from Valerie Seckler

LOS ANGELES — Guess Inc. is getting deeper into the Internet by updating its existing site, exploring actual transactions and developing a teen chat room to market Guess products.
Guess’s Web site — one of the first in the fashion industry — already draws in plenty of visitors, with 19.3 million hits in the past year. But now it’s time to update the 2 1/2-year-old site with new technology, said Joe Fink, vice president and chief information officer of Guess.
After the facelift, which will appear in three weeks, the next step is to find out the best way to sell merchandise on the Internet.
“Of course we’d like to sell on the Internet,” said Andrea Weiss, president of Guess’s retail division.
But before Internet sales can begin, a plan must be approved by Guess’s executive committee. After approval, which could be as early as yearend, it will still take another 12 months before actual selling can begin, Fink explained, adding, “I’m in the process of trying to evaluate what it’s going to take to sell on the Web.”
That process might not be so simple. Fashion apparel companies like Guess face the toughest battle among marketers vying for business in cyberspace, according to industry observers.
In fact, fashion apparel and jewelry are the “least-well-suited products for Internet retailing,” cautioned Richard Baum, analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co., at a global retailing conference sponsored by the investment bank last month.
Fashion shoppers are largely concerned with a product’s image, Baum noted, and experience this more fully by, say, trying on items for size and feeling the fabrics.
Around 70 percent of Internet surfers are male, found Goldman’s research, further limiting the near-term electronic sales potential of women’s fashion.
Nonetheless, retailers like Federated Department Stores, Gap, Lands’ End, Eddie Bauer, J.C. Penney, and Sears, Roebuck are mounting major marketing efforts on the Net — which is expected to snare 25 percent of U.S. merchandise sales by 2005.
By the end of the year, Goldman is projecting 43 million Americans and 69 million worldwide will be using the Net. By 2000, there should be 81 million surfers in the U.S. and 163 million globally.
Electronic commerce generally has been constrained in this country because less than 15 percent of the U.S. population is on line.
But even without actual sales taking place, the Internet is a crucial marketing tool for Guess and other fashion houses. In fact, Guess has found the Web more effective than direct mail. The company recently sent the same promotional information to members of its Internet Web site and via direct mail to credit card customers who have made purchases at Guess’s freestanding stores. Guess received five times as many responses from Internet members as it did from direct mail, according to a company spokeswoman.
The membership base is developed when people who visit the Guess home page voluntarily enter their name and personal information. There are currently 21,000 names in the database. The people who visit Guess’s home page come from around the globe, with 50 percent from North America, 24 percent from Asia and Pacific Rim countries, 17 percent from Europe and the remaining 7 percent from South America, the spokeswoman said.
It receives about 2,000 e-mail questions and comments a month from people who visit the Web site. And while few details were available about Guess’s plans for a teen chat room, the company is said to be in talks with an outside firm about setting one up.
The main changes that will take place on Guess’s updated site include a redesigned product section, where women’s, men’s and children’s fashions are displayed. The home page is also changing and will have flashier, more user-friendly items. For example, each product section will automatically be highlighted in red as a user moves a mouse over the listing.
“One of the most important things is ease of getting around the site — Navigability,” the spokeswoman said.
One of the most appealing aspects of Internet marketing is the low cost, the spokesman noted. Guess simply barters data with Yahoo, the search engine giant, to display Guess banners across Yahoo’s main page, and more than 500,000 hits a month are generated from this approach.
As a result, Guess will integrate its own banners within the revamped site to promote other sections. For instance, a banner might run across the product section to draw users into the photo gallery of Guess models.
The new site will also show magazine covers that display Guess products. Users will be able to click on the cover and see photos that include Guess merchandise. Cyberpostcards are another popular option. These postcards are already available to users, who type in messages to send via e-mail to their friends. As part of the new site, two postcards will be added each month.

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