NOTHING BUT NET

Byline: Peter Braunstein

BEACH BLANKET BIKINI.COM CLAMBAKE
During the frenzied last-minute Christmas shopping push, shoppers in Manhattan’s Big Kmart at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue were met with an unusual distraction. The announcer enjoined the crowd to “Meet Irine Krupnik, the Bikini.com supermodel,” and some shoppers — primarily men in their 40s — carved a slice out of their busy shopping day to ogle Irene, who also graces the heavily trafficked Bikini.com Web site.
The Kmart stunt was classic Bikini.com, which since 1997 has dubbed itself “The World’s Biggest Beach Party” — or, at the very least, the biggest one in cyberspace. The Web site has hit upon an irresistible formula for attracting online visitors, featuring almost limitless (un)coverage of young women and men in bikinis, along with bikini-related videos, bikinigrams, bikini advice and a general Frankie-and-Annette environment of perpetual clambake. Approximately 213,000 people put their feet in the cybersand at Bikini.com in December, according to Web ratings agency Media Metrix, and 55 percent of those visitors were men.
Bikini.com has also revealed a flair for off-line marketing as well, by staging bikini photo shoots in the middle of Times Square, conducting Bikini.com model searches and bus tours and evoking a kitschy landscape in which sand, volleyball and wine coolers are never far away.
Bikini.com seems to be more than the sum of its marketing, though. Indeed, the dot-com’s strategy for success belies the surfer-dude superficiality of its aesthetic. Early on, Bikini.com ruled out e-tail as a primary revenue stream.
“We decided not to go with an e-commerce business model,” says Howard Sonnenschein, president and co-founder of Bikini.com. “Instead, we want to be like Martha Stewart: an expert in a lifestyle, in this case, the beach lifestyle. We build a brand — Bikini.com — online, and take it offline.” As a result, even though Bikini.com presents close to 70 swimwear catalogs online from such names as Baja Blue, Body Glove and Nautica, it doesn’t sell any of the items on the Web site itself. Instead, Bikini.com derives the lion’s share of revenue from licensing various merchandise, some of which can be viewed on the Web site. Its most recent license deals include Bikini.com-branded swimwear for girls (via Backflips Inc.) and nonathletic, beach-inspired footwear (via Eastman Group).
Given his background as producer of E Network’s “Videofashion” show from 1987 to 1993, it’s not surprising that Sonnenschein has an eye for synergy. His latest coup is a book deal with Rizzoli. “It’s a coffee-table book about the Bikini.com boys — very fashiony,” he says. “We think it will do well with female fans of the boys.” And it may sell a few copies in Chelsea.

SPARKING THE WIRELESS CIRCUIT
E-commerce hasn’t yet emerged from the stigma of last year’s dot-com doldrums, but that hasn’t prevented Internet pundits from scouting the next frontier in the wired economy: mobile commerce, or m-commerce, facilitated by Web-enabled mobile phones. Given that most Americans have already grown accustomed to their personal computers, how will m-commerce gain a foothold in the U.S.?
Many observers say they’re sanguine about the prospect of mobile Internet access taking hold globally: a recent KPMG study predicts that, by 2003, more consumers will access the Web by mobile phones than by PCs. European and American telecom companies are expected to invest up to $300 billion in acquiring spectrum licenses and infrastructure to implement third-generation, or 3G, technologies that will enable transmission of data to mobile devices at up to six times faster than existing 2G and 2.5G digital networks. Despite such heady investments and rosy predictions, the question remains: What would prompt Americans to adopt m-commerce? A scan of mobile Internet use in more m-forward countries hints at possible U.S. deployment scenarios, among them, chat, instant messaging, video gaming and quick access to information services.
Sonera zed has been operating wireless portal services in Finland for more than two years. Having acquired 700,000 users as of mid-2000, zed has since rolled out its service in Europe and Asia and plans to launch in the U.S. this month with carrier Powertel. As Sonera zed chief executive officer Paul Hughes explains, mobile Internet penetration depends heavily on regional considerations. “Here in the U.S., everyone has a land-line connection, so people can access the Net at any time. At the same time, there have been frustrations with cell phones,” he said. “By contrast, Japanese and Europeans don’t have a standard Net connection and their mobile phones work better, so the mobile Internet is a natural. In fact, when you ask someone in Europe and Asia for their phone number, they don’t have three different ones — home, work, cell — like in the U.S. They only have one; their cell number. It’s like a social security number.”
Hughes also notes the mobile Internet, which favors text communication over verbal, is particularly suited to the Finnish cultural landscape. “Finns are a terse people, so avoiding voice discussions is often desirable. You can dispense with the ‘how are you today?’ and other pleasantries.” Even with the anticipated rollout of 3G mobile systems with CD quality sound and streaming video, Hughes doesn’t anticipate actual mobile Internet shopping will take off here in the near future. “There are shopping limitations, given a screen that’s the size of a credit card,” said Hughes. “Instead, I believe that the first iteration of what is being called m-commerce will be ads or coupons e-mailed to your mobile phone.” In fact, a tech-forward Emporio Armani, in partnership with Vindigo, last year conducted an e-mail promotional campaign designed to drive mobile customers to its off-line stores.

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