BARGAINS, COZY LOOKS LIGHT UP HOLIDAY

Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — New notes of hope for a solid holiday season online were sounded Thursday by an eclectic quartet: America Online, the giant Internet service provider that claims 90 apparel partners in its shopping network; Bluefly.com, a high-profile off-pricer of designer fashion, and market researchers Nielsen/NetRatings and Jupiter Media Metrix.
Bluefly has weighed in with sales gains of roughly 33 percent, both for November and the 11 months ended Nov. 30, citing strong demand for cashmere, leather and other goods connoting comfort and warmth. November sales of $2.4 million, up from $1.8 million a year earlier, contributed 12 percent of Bluefly’s year-to-date volume, which tallied $20.1 million. In the first 11 months of 2000, Bluefly’s sales reached $15.1 million. The November results follow a 68 percent run-up to sales of $2.7 million in October.
“With the end of the dot-com hype and the clamor for cozy products, I expect mom-and-pop e-tailers will do well this season,” projected Angela Kapp, president of Angela Kapp Consulting, a specialist in ‘Net marketing. Small-scale indie Web sites positioned to capitalize on consumers’ current mood, she said, include VintageVoola.com; p45.com; hatgeneration.com; stacianewyork.com, and 4petwear.com.
Bluefly, among others, also appears to have benefited from a surge in traffic to online apparel sites reported in the Nielsen/NetRatings Holiday E-Commerce Index, which shows visits to such e-tailers during the week ended Dec. 2 surged 66 percent, to total 5.8 million, up from 3.5 million visits made the week ended Oct. 28. During that same period, traffic at shopping aggregators, like AOL, Yahoo and MSN, advanced 80 percent, to 36 million trips from 20 million, and visits to virtual department stores rose 59 percent, to 35 million from 22 million, N/NR said.
Also aiding Bluefly’s effort, according to Ken Seiff, chairman and chief executive officer, was the drop of a 20-page offline catalog late last month promoting “luxury gifts for less,” like a cashmere cable-knit sweater priced at $129 (versus a suggested retail price of $375); a women’s fitted leather jacket, $279 (versus $595), and a velvet and lace camisole and brief set, $79.95 (versus $168). Although Bluefly, like most off-pricers, doesn’t advertise brands, its Web site featured items Friday from Michael Kors, Prada, Fendi, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. The off-pricer is one of a growing number of online fashion merchants to try print catalogs this season, a broad-ranging group that includes giants like America Online, Yahoo and eBay, as well as scrappy pure-plays such as RedEnvelope.com and Bluefly.
“E-tailers’ early-purchase incentives, such as free delivery for early orders, have contributed to a solid start to the holiday shopping season,” observed Ken Cassar, senior analyst at the Jupiter Research unit of JMM. “Next week will be critical for both consumers and e-tailers as we approach the deadline for Christmas orders with standard shipping rates.”
While not exactly insuring robust sales, JMM’s new traffic data suggests a rewarding season still lies ahead for fashion’s cybermerchants. For one thing, apparel sites are attracting affluent shoppers. Among the 75 most heavily trafficked shopping Web sites of 500 canvassed, JMM found that Gap.com drew the highest portion of shoppers with household incomes of more than $100,000 annually, as about 36 percent of its customers last month came from that group. Also drawing significant shares of upscale shoppers were LLBean.com, pulling 33 percent of its visitors from the $100,000-plus demographic; EddieBauer.com, 29 percent, and LandsEnd.com, 24 percent.
Besides drawing the biggest share of affluent shoppers during the week ended Dec. 2, Gap.com also had the fifth-largest percentage leap in daily visitors, luring 85,000 shoppers a day on average, or 74 percent more than the prior week, according to JMM. Also rating among the top 15 percentage gainers in traffic over the last week of November were liquidator Overstock.com, ranking fourth, with an average of 164,000 users daily, up 86 percent from a week earlier; LandsEnd.com, eighth, with 84,000 visitors, up 65 percent.
Overall, JMM found 1.6 million different shoppers visited apparel Web sites during the week ended Dec. 2, up 30 percent from the prior week, marking the fifth-biggest percentage gain among shopping categories after fragrance/cosmetics, movies, music and food.
If a few words can foretell the future in cyberspace, then apparel e-tailers ought to be encouraged by fashion’s presence among the three top search terms in AOL’s Shopping Search engine: Sony Playstation, miniskirts and Harry Potter. Jeans and sweaters also ranked among the most popular item searches. Plus, women’s apparel and teen apparel are the leading shopping categories now being accessed through AOL’s engine, followed by electronic games, portable electronic products and Harry Potter merchandise.

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