Byline: Rusty Williamson

DALLAS — is pushing ahead as a pioneer of three-dimensional fashion shopping applications in cyberspace, going live April 5 with its latest take: a virtual gift, beauty, and fashion accessories boutique displaying 54 designer items in a setting that mimics a Neiman Marcus store.
The new boutique — a testimony to the popularity of the luxury e-tailer’s Manolo Blahnik 3-D shoe shop, launched last August — offers a range of items from Issey Miyake fragrance to Loro Piana silk and cashmere scarves, Kate Spade handbags and John Hardy’s sterling and precious gemstone jewelry. The offerings are displayed in departments for women, men and those seeking a gift, and represent a niche that Neiman’s plans to grow aggressively online.
Unlike the Blahnik boutique, the virtual gift gallery works at both narrow and broad bandwidths, enabling consumers with slower modems to access the 3-D site more readily.
“Neiman’s is pursuing a multichannel gift emphasis,” said Dan Korn, executive vice president of Neiman Marcus Online, who joined the Neiman Marcus Direct division in December. “We started it with a gift book from our catalog division in January, and we’re following up with the virtual gift boutique. Neiman’s stores will launch a gift initiative in the fall.”
That’s the type of multichannel merchandising strategy Web watchers have been advocating for e-tailers to fully leverage the Internet’s capacity to drive business in off-line channels. According to Internet consultant Jupiter Media Metrix, approximately $2 are spent off-line at multichannel retailers for every dollar spent by those customers on the stores’ Web sites.
While declining to furnish figures, Korn said that Neiman’s online gift business was already charting robust sales, prior to the e-boutique’s launch, which made it a top vehicle for virtual expansion. “We plan to maintain a tightly edited assortment of unusual merchandise that reflects the taste level of our shoppers and represents what our team of merchandisers feel most strongly about,” Korn said of the 3-D gift gallery’s mission.
The merchandise featured in the new e-boutique is also available on the Neiman’s Web site via search engine, or by the designer or trend pathways.
The layout and decor of the new virtual niche were designed by New York interior designer Randall Ridless who effectively re-created the feel of a brick-and-mortar Neiman Marcus store. Indeed, taking a virtual tour of the new Neiman’s niche is reminiscent of a stroll through the chain’s North Park Center unit in Dallas, right down to placement of windows, walls and some Zen-like gardens. Ridless has designed the interiors of many leading designer brick-and-mortar boutiques, including the new Burberry flagship in London that made its debut last fall.
“It’s not an exact replica of the stores, but the niche definitely has a store feeling,” Korn said. “In the men’s section, for example, we replicate darker paneling for a more masculine feel.”
Neiman’s Online plans to play up the 3-D boutique with highly targeted e-mail marketing campaigns and has already given it some highly coveted real estate: a link on the right-hand side of the landing pad, a space experts believe the eye is more drawn to than other parts of the screen.
Shoppers who haven’t yet invested in speedy — and often pricey — Internet boosters, such as DSL or cable-TV connections, can still breeze right into the new Neiman’s boutique. Like the Blahnik shop, the gift gallery mirrors reality with environmental and textural visuals, such as sunlight or moonlight filtering through its windows.
But thanks to new technology interpreted by RichFX, an Atlanta-based Internet consultant and design firm, the Neiman’s gift gallery goes a step further than the Blahnik shoe boutique. There’s a higher polish on the visual aspects of the shopping experience, making the ambience richer and details more clarion. For example, polished marble walls gently shimmer in a soft moonlight that’s streaming in from nearby windows; lacquered red doors gently part with the nudge of a butterfly’s wing, and faceted gemstones spin, sparkle and dazzle as though dancing with the sun.
“Unlike with a lot of Flash technology that only functions well with broad bandwidth connections,” Korn noted, “if you access this site from a 56K modem, you’ll get the exact same shopping experience [as from a broadband connection]. We want to insure that this experience is available to as many of our customers as possible.”