YOU’VE GOT SALES
MEGA-DEALS ASIDE, THE INTERNET’S INNER LAYER OF BUSINESS IS EMERGING.
Byline: Holly Haber
The Internet is grabbing headlines everyday for its mega-deals and seemingly limitless potential for big business. But the World Wide Web’s influence is also extending far beyond the big plays to the inner layers of industry — and apparel is no exception.
The surge to do business via computer on the Web is not just for big chains and high-dollar brands. An undercurrent of wholesale sales representatives, small manufacturers and independent specialty stores is also learning how to exploit the potential of the Internet for promotion, sales and information-gathering on fashion trends. The impacts are appearing in both the business-to-consumer and business-to-business realms — and far from being left out in the cold, some wholesalers are busy experimenting with new roles for their operations in the online apparel market.
“I believe it will be the biggest thing to hit the wholesale development of retail sales in a long time,” said Marty Fishman, owner of St. Maarten here, which manufactures belts and handbags and imports four clothing collections from Europe.
Fishman is building a Web site that will refer consumers to the retail stores that carry the products he represents. Shoppers will be able to select an item and order it via the Web site from a store that has purchased it. The site will maintain inventory data and transmit the customer’s vital statistics and credit card number to the store that carries the product, Fishman explained.
The site, which is called StMaartenUSA.com, is scheduled to go live on the Web this month. It cost $35,000 to build.
“We’ve turned all our retailers into e-tailers,” Fishman asserted. “A retail store can presell whatever [the customer] bought before it ever reaches her store. She can reorder it even before it comes in.”
Fishman plans to advertise the site with billboards, newspaper and radio advertising in individual markets, starting with Dallas. The site will also be keyed to 700 search engines under such categories as fashion, handbags and designer collections.
St. Maarten’s Web site will also function further up the distribution stream, enabling retailers to view collections before a sales rep calls on them, thus allowing buyers to tell sales reps which groups they would like to see. Alternatively, a buyer could write orders online.
Reps who don’t want to build their own site have another option: the Web site 4reps.com offers to build a simple one-page Web site for $50. The site lists the showroom’s name, address, telephone number and lines, along with a photo and brief biography of the principals. Participants have the option of posting photographs of their lines on the site for an additional fee. So far, about 90 reps have signed on, according to its creator, Brian Pivnick.
Pivnick has a video production and Web-site development firm in Atlanta, called Pivwolf Productions. In addition, he is no stranger to the wholesale business. He grew up playing Nerf ball in the halls of the AmericasMart, where his parents, Al and Roz Pivnick, have been reps for 35 years.
“I still go to shows, and the reps kept saying to me they wanted a presence on the Internet, and asking how would they go about it,” Pivnick recalled. “So, we’re making a community that makes sense for reps and buyers.”
Like many a Web venture, Pivnick’s business is not primarily profit-driven, but rather is driven by traffic and community. “I did not intend this to be a moneymaker. I intend it to be something that made sense for the reps and was affordable,” he said.
Pivnick added that it might prove profitable in the future, however, if it carries advertising.
While a few of the reps on the site currently are from Dallas, most of the reps participating to date are in Atlanta, Pivnick said. He hopes to pick up showrooms in Chicago and Los Angeles, being, as pure-play Web operations are, unencumbered by geography.
He has not advertised the 4reps.com site so far, or linked it with search engines; he said he intends to keep traffic limited while he works out the kinks. Pivnick anticipates promoting the site in trade publications later on, as more retailers become increasingly savvy about the Internet.
“Last year, I’d say about 20 percent of buyers had e-mail. But now I’d say it’s drastically changed, and at least half of them are on line,” he noted. “We were in Florida at a show, and a 75-year-old woman whipped out her laptop to write an order.”
Mindy Whipple, proprietor of the Mindy & Me showroom at the International Apparel Mart in Dallas, is represented on 4reps.com with a page that lists her 12 lines and provides a link to view pictures of one of the lines.
“Right now, it’s an excellent way to get my name out there and list all of my lines; but I want to go deeper, because I think people are really getting into this computer stuff,” Whipple noted. “I’m getting other reps calling me and asking about it — more so than the stores. I’d like to give more information about the lines — photos, what age group it’s for, prices. If the stores can get that information, it will link us all.”
Silverado, a women’s clothing and home furnishings maker in Albuquerque, N.M., that is represented in Atlanta by Pivnick’s parents, has commissioned Pivnick to create a Web site intended to display highlights of its lines. SilveradoFashions.com is slated to be operational in mid-March.
“What I’ve seen on the Web in terms of clothing has been very poor,” asserted Sylvia Ortiz Spence, owner of Silverado. “Clothing is very tactile, and you have to make it as visually exciting as possible, and I haven’t seen that happening that much on the Web. I wanted something visually exciting, that drew you in and moved fast from one picture to the next.”
Beyond the visual, Spence also created the site to offer retailers a reference point at which to locate sales reps in specific territories.
“We’re not selling on Web,” Spence noted, “but I’m not discounting that for the future.”
Victoria Jackson, owner of the Byzantine contemporary clothing store in Dallas, started her Web site late last year to promote her store. In February, she added the ability to take orders. Within a week of that upgrade, Byzantineclothing.com had booked a Laundry black-and-white checked dress and a Kalan blue crystal necklace, even though the site was not yet linked to search engines.
Jackson said she believes the Web site is proving useful in drawing new customers. “I’ve gotten a few e-mails from people wanting different things,” she reported. “They see it, and call me at the store or e-mail me. I’ve also gotten customers that have called about an item they saw on the site and then bought something else. And I’ve gotten new customers onto the mailing list.”
Byzantine’s Web site lists 20 of the key lines the store stocks and publishes photos of one to three looks from each of the labels. All the promoted lines can be purchased via the Web site. In addition, the site posts information about the store.
Tootsies, the Houston-based specialty chain of five stores, does not have its own Web site up and running yet. Its executives, however, are already putting the Internet to use by previewing designer collections.
“Every buyer is online to watch the shows, wherever they are taking place,” explained Susie Calmes, fashion director for Tootsies’ store in Dallas. “It’s useful in that you can get a sense of the theme of the collection. We eliminated appointments in New York after seeing the collections online. This way, we can make better use of our time.”
The Dallas Market Center also is getting in on the action, with an ambitious plan to upgrade its existing Web presence into a virtual marketplace. The firm, which owns and operates the Dallas International Apparel Mart, has had a Web site since 1994 that posts basic information about the complex. Now, DMC plans to offer tenants the opportunity to build their own Web sites, under the umbrella of DallasMarketCenter.com.
Reps can choose a simple listing for free, or pay to create bigger, more complex Web sites with photos of lines and even the ability to take orders online. The strategy is to create a Kinko’s-type computer lab on the site, at which exhibitors and buyers will be able to build their own Web sites, for fees of $1,500 and up.
For buyers, the proposed services at the improved DallasMarketCenter.com include trend reports, information on sales tools and merchandising techniques, chat rooms, travel bookings, closeout auctions, classifieds and job listings. The DMC also plans to post sales information, revealing which styles and colors are selling best in specific geographic regions.
Ultimately, the DMC would like to offer a host of other services to buyers, including health benefits, Internet access and long-distance telephone service.
“If we can pool our 75,000 retailers, we can get pretty good discounts,” said Bill Winsor, chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas Market Center. “It’s all geared to benefit the retailer and reduce their cost of doing business.
“Our goal is to facilitate trade and create as efficient an interaction between buyer and seller as we can,” said Winsor.
The DMC e-commerce platform is expected to be online by December of this year. However, if a cybernetic wholesale market model proves to be successful, what fate awaits the brick-and-mortar complex? Winsor claimed that the virtual market would only make the physical DMC more valuable to buyers.
“We think it will increase attendance,” he said. “We plan to offer weekly sweepstakes offering an open-to-buy redeemable at market, computer equipment and air tickets.”
Winsor is not alone in suspecting that the emergence of a virtual market for the apparel business does not signal the end of business as it is conducted today. Many industry observers are questioning whether the Internet could ever replace the act of reviewing lines in person.
“Gifts will be a super-easy sell over the Internet, but with clothing, they want to see the fabrics and see the girls try it on, especially when you’re talking about specialty stores,” explained Pivnick. “We are setting up reorders on line, but the goal is to keep relationships between reps and stores existing, and not turn it into something that is impersonal.
“Why do manufacturers still use reps? If it weren’t for the relationships,” Pivnick noted, “they could just have girls work the phones at their headquarters.”