Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — It’s starting small with a handful of collections. Nonetheless, Uuma, an upcoming e-commerce site, could put some oomph back into the wavering bridge business after it’s launched in August.
Uuma will be the first Internet site featuring only bridge resources: The lineup so far includes Elie Tahari, Equipment, Anne Klein, Dismero, Lafayette 148, Philipe Adec and M by Lauren Sara. Organizers intend to eventually broaden the offerings with more bridge lines, as well as designer, better, men’s and children’s wear labels.
“Luxury is getting ready to explode on the Internet,” maintained Lucinda Bhavsar, Uuma’s vice president of brand marketing and former director of marketing, iVillage. “The trend is starting to move where consumers are feeling comfortable on the Internet. As technology improves, the Internet offers convenience and superior customer service, making apparel very right to be sold on the Internet.”
“We are very happy with the group of people we have assembled to achieve our sales plan,” added Bruce Baas, Uuma’s vice president of merchandising, and a former Bergdorf Goodman divisional merchandising manager of designer sportswear and better apparel. First-year volume is projected at $11 million. Jackets are priced $330 to $798; skirts, $145 to $345; pants, $155 to $285; shirts, $135 to $249, and dresses, $240 to $395.
“We could build up to 30 or 40 lines,” Baas said. Currently, it’s targeting educated, professional women, ages 30 to 55.
This year, Web hype has simmered down, with skepticism creeping over the profit potential of B-to-C operations and technology stocks losing value. In addition, the upscale apparel market is largely untested on the Internet and the competition so far is limited. A few designers have e-commerce sites, with Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus taking the lead in online upscale selling. Saks Fifth Avenue plans to launch its site in June, and Fashion500, expected to be launched for fall selling, could be a tough competitor for Uuma.
Uuma organizers base their optimism on market research forecasting solid growth in apparel sales in the U.S. and online apparel sales, and they’re confident that the special features being loaded onto the Uuma site will make shopping there appealing.
“It will be a completely personalized experience — fun, easy to use and replicating the in-store experience,” said Bhavsar. She also described Uuma as “an affordable vehicle” for designers wishing to sell on the Web, and a vehicle for establishing stronger communications with consumers. She further observed, “It’s a selling channel that doesn’t require markdown money.”
Among several features she touted is “the changing room” where consumers and Uuma’s personal shoppers can assemble merchandise from different collections and mix-and-match different tops, bottoms, accessories and shoes for creating outfits. For example, five different blouses from various designers can be viewed side by side in the changing room for easier comparisons.
The technology will automatically convert a consumer’s body measurements to the proper sizes for each designer, Bhavsar said. The site will also recommend items and will store the consumer’s size and designer preferences to customize the suggestions. It will be sending out personalized e-mails to customers about new merchandise and special deals, and there will be a chat line, style tips and profiles on designers on the site.
Also, a team of round-the-clock personal shoppers [starting with 10] is being assembled to assist shoppers by phone or e-mail. There will be more personal shoppers [around 30] working from their homes. All personal shoppers will help customers navigate the site and select items and will notify customers about new products.
Uuma’s shopping experience, Bhavsar said, is geared to be faster and easier, since it will entail a two-step “express” checkout option for registered users. Also, returns are prepaid with adhesive return labels supplied.
To support her case for launching Uuma, she cited market data from Forrester Research projecting U.S. online apparel sales at $20 billion in 2003, with 39.6 million female shoppers currently shopping online. She also cited Goldman Sachs research indicating that of U.S. homes with incomes exceeding $75,000, 72 percent shop online to some extent.
Uuma was founded by Sramana Mitra, ceo, with $1.5 million in seed money from Redwood Ventures, a technology venture firm in Silicon Valley. She was formerly president and ceo of Intarka, a sales automation software company.
Uuma, which in Indian mythology refers to the goddess of strength and beauty, expects to complete its first round of financing within a few weeks, according to Bhavsar.
Uuma has hired a prominent group of consultants, including Frank Mori, president of Takihyo and co-founder of Donna Karan Co.; Gale Hayman, co-founder of Giorgio Beverly Hills boutique and cosmetics entrepreneur; Gloria Gelfand, former ceo of Escada USA; Harriet Weintraub, publicist, and Betty Halbreich, a personal shopping director at Bergdorf Goodman who has a monthly fashion column on the Uuma site.
The site can be accessed, though no e-commerce is being conducted at present. “Industries like upscale fashion retail are ready to be turned upside down by smart e-commerce companies,” said Mitra, in a statement.
“People don’t have access to high-quality fashion apparel throughout the country…or the world. What’s more, most players in this category do not understand the sophisticated technology required for a truly experiential store, therefore, their customers are denied the shopping experience beyond a very basic Web site.”