Byline: Rebecca Kleinman

Get apparel specialty retailers talking about the World Wide Web, and they’ll give you plenty of reasons for not selling their wares online.
But make no mistake: Many of them are indeed hanging their shingles in cyberspace, and if they are not currently taking orders from consumers, they are thinking hard about it.
If an informal survey of specialty merchants in the Southeast region is an indication, you can bet that many boutiques are online already or have owners in the midst of developing a Web site.
And just listen, as they go on about the medium’s weaknesses in terms of the consumer experience: no touching and feeling of clothes, no socialization with salespeople; or the prospects for greater returns, problems with delivery, prohibitive costs for little return, and so on.
It’s still clear that specialty retailers are moving toward the Web, even if in some cases they are fretting along the way.
Among retailers in this region, the reason for going online range from the most basic — “because it’s there” — to the need to keep with national competitors. But most important of all, they say, a Web site gives the store extended presence in the minds of existing and potential customers, whether it offers e-commerce or not.
According to Harry Hallman, owner of HIP Media, an Internet sales, marketing and design firm based in Atlanta, the primary challenge for any retailer is to decide what to accomplish through the site. “Does the owner want to get more customers into the bricks-and-mortar store? Or is it about sales, public relations or building a customer database for e-mail or direct mail advertisement campaigns?”
Retailers also realize that e-mail hold out the promise of the demise of direct mail, and that a Web site is a quite efficient vehicle for the exchange of basic information such as sales dates and store locations and descriptions.
But the next step, e-commerce, leaves many of them squeamish. The concerns of Southeast retailers would sound familiar to anyone in the business who hasn’t just crawled out from under a rock: sizing issues, shipping costs, returns, and the distance from consumers created by not being able to feel fabrics, truly see colors or easily put an outfit together.
That leaves some, for now, believing that the Internet is best suited for selling basics, for expediting repeat purchases of familiar products or for offering access to clothing that is hard to find in the bricks-and-mortar world.
Herewith, dispatches from the front line of specialty retailing on the Web:

Urban Evolution, Charlotte, N.C. Site: (offers e-commerce)

Cristopher Frers, general manager:
We launched our site in 1996. Instead of being an online company, we use the site more as a catalyst to increase awareness about the bricks-and-mortar store, and to move inventory in the store.
All of our categories in the store are represented online, too, like Spoon and Storm watches; Skye, Fornarina, MC Power and NYLA shoes, and men’s and women’s clothing. We display 20 items for each gender on its own page. We choose items that are exciting, rather than basics. There’s also a page of sale items.
The site is customer-friendly and interactive, since there is some trepidation about buying online within our category. Customers can call us on a toll-free number to ask for a more detailed description, or to ask how an item feels or fits. If we’re sold out, we call the customer to place a special order, or suggest an alternative.
It’s the same level of customer service as if they were in the store. Plus, if they can talk to us, there’s less of a chance of a return. Even with interaction, though, there are some returns; but the rewards outweigh the work.
Our business has increased 20 percent from online sales in the last year, without adding too much overhead. We get between $2,000 and $3,000 in sales each week. There are marketing perks too. A Web site is a great way for small businesses to increase visibility. It’s the best way to reach customers who aren’t shopping in the store.
It also gives the person living in Idaho a chance to buy cool clothing. If they read about a designer and then go to that line’s Web site, it usually lists links to retailers. We also have links to designers and other retailers on our site. That’s why it’s important to focus on a few key words when you’re designing the site, so when a customer does a search, your store pops up in the first five entries. It’s also a good idea to list links unrelated to your category. It makes things more interesting. We plan to add music links.
Along with key words, the site should be as specific as possible about what you’re selling. You need to pick a niche, look and crowd to go after. Retailers need to work it, too. You can’t just put it out there.

A Nose for Clothes, Miami (with eight locations in Florida
Site: Georgia) (no e-commerce)

Freda Greenbaum, owner:
People ask us daily to add an online store to our Web site, which has been up for two years. But for now, we’re concentrating on opening more bricks-and-mortar stores, like our ninth location in Palm Beach, Fla.
The online store format is ready to go, though, and has the potential to display nearly 60 items. We’re holding off because accepting orders takes more time than we are committed to. I also think that technology is limited when it comes to selling the types of garments we carry. How do you describe how a soft, perforated, laser-cut, suede item feels?
I think the Web works better for basics like T-shirts and jeans — what the Gap does. We can’t compete in that arena. It’s a lot harder to go online if you’re not a cookie-cutter business.
Since we specialize in trend-oriented better goods, the majority of our customers haven’t seen the trend yet. They need to be educated, like how to turn a one-of-a-kind silk scarf into a handkerchief skirt, and how to tie and position it, or what kind of bra to wear with a certain top.
Ours is a touching, feeling and socialization business. The service factor requires more intimacy. That is the driving force in how we sell clothes.
Another problem with selling online is sizing. It’s hard enough to get the right fit when the customer is standing right there in the dressing room. What used to be a medium changes from hour to hour now. And suiting varies from contemporary sizes. It’s too confusing for the customer not to know exactly what she’s ordering.
Currently, our site features fashion information for the season, sort of a fashion tour of a dozen looks. It also lists special events like trunk and fashion shows, store hours and maps to each of our locations.
I used to do a section called “Ask Freda” on fashion advice, and would get dozens of questions a day. I had to pull it because it became too time-consuming. It would take a full-time person.
One of my biggest goals with the Web site is to communicate with more customers online. Right now, we have a list of 300 to 400 customers who have given us e-mail access, compared to our mailing list of 22,000 people. For an incentive to get online, we reward those people; for example, on Valentine’s Day, they could download a special offer. We’ll do this for other events, too. We need to offer some type of an incentive, because the cost of communicating via mail is tremendous.
When we first went online, we rewarded customers who filled out a questionnaire with Nosebucks. So many responses came in that we got all the information we needed, and removed the offer.
The start-up cost, not including my time, was around $2,500. I interviewed several companies and got bids from the thousands to the tens of thousands. Luckily, we found a local person to provide all the technological information, and we acted as creative directors. That cut down on costs a lot. I sat with the Web designer and the art director, but I don’t know if I’d do it that way again.
As far as maintenance goes, the Web designer updates it. I’m going to have to hire more personnel to keep on top of it, though. Our management information systems section has two full-time employees now, and I plan to add a part-time staff member.
But you can’t have eight store locations and no Web site. You can’t build a business these days without a dot-com. It’s about telling your customer that you’re moving forward.
Edge City, Jacksonville, Fla. Site: (e-commerce)
Tom McCleery, owner:
Being a youth-oriented store influenced our decision to go online a year and a half ago. Since the Edge City domain name was already taken, we had to use my partner’s first name instead.
Although the site hasn’t been particularly successful, with about $1,200 to $2,000 a month in sales, it’s new and exciting. And not to be present on the Internet would be scary. It’s not a get-rich-quick type of medium. You have to develop a following over time.
The experience has been like opening a whole new store. We’ve expanded to include the outside world now. The places we get orders from are so random. It’s great for us, because everyone in Jacksonville already knows about the store. But it also helps local shoppers, too, who can look up items on the Internet before coming in. It saves them and us time.
We designed the site to be like a real boutique. There are even repeat customers we e-mail images of their favorite designers’ new collections to. We sell inexpensive jewelry and eyewear, Hard Candy and Urban Decay cosmetics, Steve Madden shoes, Custo T-shirts, and clothing from French Connection, Betsey Johnson and Vivienne Tam.
I feel uncomfortable about putting Betsey Johnson on sometimes, because of the sizing problem. I also don’t like that there’s not enough room to display entire collections.
For now, the site’s mostly dedicated to displaying items. But we also e-mail several hundred of our regulars. We don’t do direct mail anymore. The site doesn’t have links to vendors yet — just to our friends’ stores. We may add some links to different categories.
We designed it ourselves, then hired someone else to write the HTML code and monitor it. My partner, Gunnel Humpreys, is a graphic artist, so it only cost us between $3,000 and $5,000 to launch. We do all of the digital photography ourselves, too.
We haven’t done any marketing, though. But when it comes to the Internet, word of mouth is so strong.

Karen Eagle, Virginia Beach, Va. Site: (no e-commerce)

Daniel Eagle, owner:
Although our store is sort of a mini department store, with bridal, prom, cocktail and ready-to-wear divisions, we launched the Web site last August mostly for our bridal business. It’s especially important in the bridal market, because girls research where to go online, even though they don’t usually buy online. We don’t sell online. Instead, we use the site as a marketing tool.
Aside from digital photos of bridal gowns, we added a page for brides on frequently asked questions, which is our biggest source of hits. There’s also general information on lines and prices and links to manufacturers and their catalogs. The girls really like that.
But I’m most excited about our new prom section, which uses flash technology in prom colors. It also has coupons for dresses or tuxedos, a place where kids can watch our TV commercial on prom; and a page where you click on a dressing room to reveal a girl wearing one of our dresses with her name, high school and a fun quote. We invited local kids over to make it. The coupons help me track sales, so I can see how effective the site is. We also supply links to prom dress manufacturers.
My next step is to create a more interactive ready-to-wear section, like a question-and-answer segment on trends. The problem is that everything is so trendy and changes so fast in that market. You’d need a team of people just to monitor it.
I also hope to communicate with customers more online. It’s less expensive. Right now, we rely on direct mail. But it would be great if you could just e-mail a customer about the shipping date on a special order.
There’s talk of going into e-commerce, but it really hasn’t been determined yet how well it works for clothing. Plus, it’s especially hard in bridal. It’s too important of a time in a girl’s life.
I wasn’t a computer guru, so we hired a great Web designer (to develop the site). But we generated the fashion direction. I also take the digital photos, or use supplied ones from manufacturers.
But, as far as hiring a Web designer, you need to find someone who gets it, and who understands both the business and artistic sides. It could be the most beautiful site ever, but does nothing for business. You also can’t just turn it over to someone else, or leave it to their creativity. Communication is key, especially in the early stages. I didn’t communicate at first and wasted a lot of time, because the designer goes off and spends hours doing something that’s going down the wrong path.
Altogether, it cost between $4,000 and $5,000.

Bill Hallman, Atlanta
Site: (e-commerce)

Bill Hallman, owner:
It’s perfect timing for me to launch the e-commerce part of the Web site this spring, because now is when things are really happening on the Web in our category. They’ve been doing it with books and music for a while.
Instead of displaying other lines from the store, we’re going to sell between 60 and 80 items from my wholesale collections, including Bill Hallman men’s, Bill Hallman women’s, and Sushi and Sake, our secondary lines for women and men. Each line will then be divided up into departments, like shirts and pants. My sister’s accessories line, Twinkle, will also be available on the site.
The margins are too small for me to sell other lines. Plus, I think some of the major labels like Diesel are sending out memos asking retailers not to sell their products online anymore.
I have no plans to market the site, except on something like our hangtags. It’s already getting lots of hits. We’ll let customers on our mailing list know about it. Of the 5,000, we have e-mail addresses from about half. We’ve cut down on direct mail. Pretty soon, I’d like to communicate all by e-mail. It saves on paper costs.
My father’s company designed the site. They’ll also maintain it. I’ll let him explain that part.

Harry Hallman, owner, HIP (Hallman Interactive Productions) Media:
Bill Hallman’s site is a prototype of an idea we have, to market medium-sized manufacturers and retailers online. The idea is that we design and maintain the site for a percentage of the online sales generated.
His site will determine if a medium-sized designer can sell successfully online.
Since a good site and its marketing can cost anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000, a sum most retailers like Bill would never pay, this idea helps them compete against larger companies. Smaller stores could hire a young freelance Web designer for a less-expensive site, but they won’t get the marketing aspects. Online stores aren’t like bricks-and-mortar stores, where you have constant walk-in traffic. Instead, you have to drag your customers in. Just having a site isn’t good enough. It needs advertising.

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