E-TAIL EYES A HAPPY HOLIDAY
Byline: Valerie Seckler / With contributions from Peter Braunstein, New York / Kristin Young, Los Angeles
NEW YORK — Whether or not fashion e-tailers will find strength in numbers this holiday rests largely on the kind of numbers being discussed: traffic, sales, or the number of brands they carry.
That’s the portrait emerging from interviews with various Internet players, who say holiday sales of apparel on Web sites where a single brand dominates, like Gap or Lands’ End, are likely to keep outpacing virtual department stores, among others that offer numerous labels, such as macys.com and saksfifthavenue.com. It’s yet another irony of cyberspace, where size most definitely matters, that the brightest shining stars in fashion e-tail now are those with one primary brand, and few if any others to merchandise and market.
“Consumers tend to split 50-50 when giving their preference for shopping single or multiple-brand sites,” said Ken Cassar, senior analyst at Internet consultant Jupiter Media Metrix, in citing surveys JMM has conducted to learn of cybershoppers’ apparel purchasing preferences online. “But in reality, the single-brand sites do better than the multiple-brand sites, and I expect that trend to continue. “It will be a great holiday for single-brand e-tailers, like Gap.com, OldNavy.com or the apparel catalogers.”
Adding to Cassar’s upbeat forecast for that segment is the robust customer traffic data reported by JMM Thursday, which showed 50.2 million people visited shopping Web sites during Thanksgiving week, up 43 percent from 35.2 million people a year ago. Among the 15 biggest traffic gainers by percentage, were: VictoriasSecret.com, ranking sixth, with 121,000 visitors, up 203 percent from last year; Fingerhut.com, seventh, with 180,000 users, up 195 percent, and Spiegel.com, 11th, with 114,000 visitors, up 138 percent.
Of course, scale still rules in the realm of customer traffic and revenue — but there remains no guarantee that browsers, who are costly to lure to e-commerce sites, will ever become buyers, via the process that’s come to be known as “conversion.” Nonetheless, Cassar said: “There’s no way to read anything but good news into those figures. In a couple of weeks, I’d be tempted to revise our forecast up, even though there’s not a direct correlation between traffic and purchasing.” For now, JMM is sticking with its online holiday sales forecast of $11.9 billion, up 10 percent from $10.8 billion last year. That compares, for example, with online holiday sales projections of $9.9 billion by Nielsen/NetRatings, and $11.5 billion by Columbus, Ohio-based Retail Forward.
With slightly more than half the 142 million estimated holiday cybershoppers expected to be women — and an average ticket on orders of apparel anticipated at around $75 — fashion could well become the Web’s strongest small-ticket category of the season. Indeed, a spot check of several e-commerce sites and portals last week found fashion is selling online, with particular strength in cashmere and leather looks.
At Yahoo Shopping, for instance, women’s apparel was the fourth most-searched-for category, led by Gucci merchandise (mostly small leather goods), shoes and lingerie. A Yahoo spokeswoman said the shopping portal had facilitated “incremental” revenue growth last week over the 75 percent gain its e-tail partners reaped during Thanksgiving weekend.
Michael Landeau, general merchandise manager at Yahoo Shopping, said demand was hot for leather, silk, and lace looks; romantic blouses; pointy boots, and sneaker shoes. Landeau, a former Nicole Miller franchisee, also cited strong business in Yahoo’s Post-Thanksgiving Sales area, where promotions at Neiman’s, Nordstrom and Ann Taylor sites, among others, are featured in a single display.
Another positive note was sounded by indie fashion site Girlshop.com, which transacted volume of roughly $300,000 in November, up more than twofold from $136,000 in November 2000, said comptroller Debbie Dwyer. Bestsellers included Alvin & Sparky cashmere slippers and Blue J horseshoe necklaces.
At vintage e-tail hub Enokiworld.com, the sweet spot is sober classics. “People don’t want ruffles — it’s that simple,” said Enokiworld owner Madeline Meyerowitz. “They want Calvin and Bonnie Cashin; clothes that are practical and American.” Though she would not disclose gross sales figures, Meyerowitz claimed the site’s average ticket is up 50 percent, to $300 from $200 last year.
Meanwhile, Kmart’s BlueLight.com, which pulled apparel from its assortment this summer, may start carrying Joe Boxer underwear next year, after Kmart executes its previously reported plan to roll it out in its brick-and-mortar stores. “Consumers [online] weren’t familiar enough with our apparel brands to know sizes, color and fit, but everyone knows Joe Boxer,” said a spokesman for San Francisco-based BlueLight, who added that the site’s sales since Thanksgiving are running 45 percent ahead of last year.
BlueLight rival Walmart.com was mum Friday on its post-Thanksgiving business, but a spokeswoman for the Brisbane, Calif.-based Web site claimed the dot-com unit is “pleased with how online holiday sales are going.” She reported robust sales in the site’s recently expanded jewelry area and said diamonds were selling briskly. Other key drivers, she added, include video game consoles and software; DVD players, and toys.
Meanwhile, cybershoppers at fashion off-pricer Bluefly.com are demonstrating an affinity for “warm, comfortable” items, from cashmere sweaters and throws to board games, said the dot-com’s chairman and chief executive officer Ken Seiff. One surprise, he added, is that evening dresses are “doing well.”
“We just had a sale on thousands of items that were 80 percent off, which helped us cut our sku’s by 20 percent,” Seiff added, estimating Bluefly’s volume between Thanksgiving and last Wednesday was up about 45 percent over last year. “Now, we have about 30,000 sku’s and 10,000 styles. “There’s no question the consumer is looking for deals, and deals within deals.”
But that’s the double-edged sword hanging over e-tailers this holiday: balancing sales promotions with all-too-elusive profitability.