Byline: Brad Barth

NEW YORK — Catalog retailer Boston Proper estimates that 30 percent of the traffic at its new Web site,, is being generated by emerging technology called “viral marketing.”
A direct merchant of women’s apparel, Boston Proper only advertises its online address in its mail-order catalogs, yet its Web site is drawing new customers every day.
“We feel they’re coming from ‘E-mail a Friend,”‘ said Skip Hartzell, executive vice president and chief creative Internet officer at Mark Group, the parent of Boston Proper, based in Boca Raton, Fla.
“E-mail a Friend” is the viral marketing campaign is using to transform online shopping from a solo activity to a social experience that can be shared among family and friends.
Viral marketing is characterized as any technique that induces Web sites or users to pass on a marketing message to other sites or users, potentially creating exponential growth in the message’s visibility and impact.
Boston Proper is encouraging consumers to e-mail product listings from its Web site to relatives and friends. “Studies from focus groups and surveys [show that] women like to shop with their friends,” Hartzell said. “They like to say, ‘What do you think of this?’ or ‘You look great in that.’ It becomes a social event.”
It’s a crafty strategy that capitalizes on women’s tendency to shop in pairs or groups and seek second opinions on clothing. It also enables Boston Proper to reach consumers who have never heard of the company before, without raising privacy concerns because the e-mail is initiated by a friend, rather than a company.
Hartzell is aware that unwanted e-mail has become a fiery issue. He blames the consumer backlash on “pure play e-commerce people who don’t really quite understand” what their customers like.
However, when marketing is done tactfully and effectively, said Hartzell, “Customers can build your database for you.” revamped its Web site in December, eight months after its initial launch, with help from e-commerce solutions provider OneSoft of McLean, Va. The viral marketing strategy is a key component of the relaunch.
Sales figures for the company’s fourth quarter, when viral marketing was introduced, skyrocketed, Hartzell said. Online sales jumped 100 percent from the previous quarter. In addition, this year the Web site has been generating 8 percent of Boston Proper’s total sales, compared with 3 percent before the marketing campaign was initiated. Forecasts for 2000 suggest an increase to 20 percent, according to Hartzell.
As the viral marketing strategy lures more shoppers to the site, Boston Proper is counting on keeping them with its high-tech, customer-friendly features that cater to affluent, baby boomer working women.
“We want to be the preeminent contemporary women site on the Internet,” explained Michael Tiernan, president and chief executive officer of Mark Group. Tiernan said Boston Proper decided in 1998 to develop a Web site, as the number of women using the Internet to shop began to rise.
“We wanted to create a site here that they could get in, search quickly, [find] what they want, order and get out,” Tiernan continued. Because speed was critical to its strategy, the company introduced a feature to its revamped site called “proper coordinance,” which helps women put together an ensemble quickly and easily.
“Every time you select an item, two other items that were predetermined come up and coordinate with the outfit,” explained Tiernan. “If it’s a print dress that has black and pink in it, a coordinating black and pink pashmina shawl might [appear] with it.”
Tiernan likened the customer service feature to shopping in a “specialty boutique with a good salesperson who helps find things that would go good with an outfit.”
Customers are also able to select their wardrobe according to lifestyle. The site selects appropriate apparel for women who require, for instance, business attire for the office and something more elegant for nights on the town.
Tiernan said it was important that the site showcase only those items that are currently in stock, and it uses Mozart, an e-commerce solution from CommercialWare of Natick, Mass., to track its inventory and handle fulfillment. After placing an order, customers can expect to receive their items in two to three days.

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