NOT ALL RETAILERS ARE IN A HURRY TO SELL ONLINE.
Byline: Rose-Marie Turk
E-commerce fever is not an epidemic among smaller fashion retailers in California. Some are holding out, even backing away, from online retailing, most typically because they reason that the online retail world as it currently stands doesn’t fit their retailing philosophies or store images.
This ambivalence to the World Wide Web as retail tableau is in vivid contrast to their colleagues and competitors who are diving into the “dot-com” world, with high hopes of attracting new audiences and boosting volume.
L.A. retailer Jill Roberts is one apparel retailer that isn’t buying into what she calls the e-commerce “implosion.” Roberts, 35, describes her two eponymous stores as having “a very boutique environment,” something she doesn’t see translating into a profitable online experience.
“I feel e-commerce caters more to things that are readily available to the masses,” she explained. “I don’t sell thousands of one T-shirt. I sell 12 units of one cashmere sweater. Then it’s gone, and I’m on to the next thing. I’d rather take the money and open another retail store.”
Last August, she did just that, launching a 2,400-square-foot-store on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. Roberts, who is married to her business partner, Mark Freeman, and has two young children, opened her original 700-square-foot store five years ago on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
“I created the store sort of for myself. My customer is really me,” Roberts said, describing the concept, which incorporates everything from $30 T-shirts to $2,000 shearling coats, as preppy chic, classic with a twist. “And I’m known for my color stories,” she said.
It’s not that Roberts is totally soured on the concept of online shopping. “I spend quite a bit of time online. I’ve bought things from Baby Gap and even some things for myself,” she explained, adding, “If you’re a Gap or a Banana Republic, you’re seen all around the country. A pair of khakis is a pair of khakis, and a white T-shirt is a white T from the Gap.
“But the vision of my store is so specialized. The merchandise is constantly changing. And it’s also about how my salespeople and I put things together for people. We have great customer service. I don’t think the merchandise I choose would work online. My customers want to try everything on, to feel the fabrics.”
That sentiment for the dynamic of the physical store is shared by Helen Lyall, whose 3,200-square-foot, high-end store in Vallejo, Calif., is celebrating its 24th year in business.
“We have no need for a Web site — not yet,” explained Lyall, who attracts affluent new customers via elaborate fashion shows she produces for fund-raisers in Marin County and San Francisco. “We have a very personalized business. People make appointments a lot, and they get our ultimate attention.”
As part of that attention, she or one of her staff pull a rack of clothes (plus all the accessories) from such labels as Hino & Malli, Sara Sturgeon, Mondi, Carol Horn, Bob Mackie and Ellen Tracy — and have it waiting for the client when she arrives.
The store thrives on additional personal touches such as a full bar and complimentary lunches. “Our customers are here for hours,” Lyall explained.
Even so, she is one boutique retailer that doesn’t rule out joining the e-commerce crowd at some point. “Sure, someday we will,” she speculated. “But right now, I don’t think we’re that kind of an operation; I don’t know that we buy enough to accommodate orders over the Web.”
Also, “We don’t get many returns, and I think we would,” she said, voicing another concern about online selling. “It’s very important for us to know our customer, and that’s our secret. We know what her body looks like; we know what she likes to wear.”
Then, there are those small operators who don’t see the possible difficulties of online retailing stopping them from plunging in and going live with e-commerce.
Among the believers is Lisa Kline, owner of two L.A. stores that bear her name. Since January, she has had a virtual storefront at Bestselections.com, an online mall for luxury goods. Kline said she is already “happy” with the results. “We’ve had enough hits to break even,” she said. “Now we’ll start making money.”
Five years ago, Kline, 30, opened her upscale women’s wear store, a favorite with actresses and stylists, on Robertson Boulevard. Last August, she launched a men’s wear store across the street.
“I jumped right on the bandwagon,” Kline said of her decision to get online. “If I can expand my business in any way, I’m going to. I know it’s going to work out. That’s where the world is going.”
So far, Web site orders have come from Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. The only “locals” Kline visualizes using the site, she said, “are people who moved away and are hungry for the merchandise — people who are having withdrawal symptoms.”
She said she currently offers 30 “trendy” online selections. “It’s a mix of everything,” she said, listing such “easier-to-buy” items as underwear, sweaters, cowboy hats, jewelry, shawls and $26 Petit Bateau tank tops.
In addition to such items, she has also posted $320 backless halter tops, each a unique combination of cashmere, embroidered vintage linen and suede ties, for sale on the site. “I’m just testing the site. They may not get it,” Kline admitted, acknowledging the challenge her one-of-a-kind item, worn without a bra, presents for online transactions. “I shop differently for it. I write separate orders. I want to see how much money we’re spending on the site. I almost put mens on, but I’m going to wait before I start.”
She speculates that her current Web presence could bring a 10 to 15 percent “bonus boost” for the year. But she has bigger plans, including her own Web site, which she plans to advertise in major magazines and run as a “fourth business venture.”
“I’ll have my own vibe,” she explained. “I’ll make it more fun and more exciting to shop. The same way it is in my store.”
Also joining the online parade is L.A. retailer Mark Goldstein. Selections from his three stores — Emma Gold on Melrose Avenue, Madison in the Brentwood Gardens and another Madison along Robertson Boulevard — will soon be available online. The merchandise, according to Holly Butler, vice president of operations, will be pulled from existing stock.
“We were approached by bestselections.com, and thought it would be a good idea,” explained Butler, who said approximately 16 lines of clothing and shoes make up the initial mix. “It’s what represents our stores best — everything from suede pants to cashmere sweaters to cotton tank tops to rhinestone thongs.”
The mix includes Earl Jeans, exclusive Matilde cashmere sweaters, Sigerson Morrison and Madison private label shoes. Prices range from $38 for tank tops and $45 for rhinestone thongs to $325 for the most expensive cashmere sweater, with the average price points in the $198 to $200 range.
Describing the cyberspace customer, Butler said, “We’re hoping it’s someone looking for high-end merchandise that they might not have access to where they live.
“We’re really excited about it,” she added. “We don’t know what to expect. If it depletes our stock, we would end up buying for the e-commerce market.”
Rather than joining “a virtual mall” as Lisa Kline and some others have, Julie Zamaryonov, owner of NYSE on Beverly Boulevard in L.A., said she is hoping to have her own Web site, Nyseboutique.com, up and running within a month.
“On a certain level, I think it is a great source of advertisement. It’s cheaper than placing ads in magazines,” said Zamaryonov, 30, whose full-service boutique is another favorite of actresses and stylists, and who specializes in discovering new designers. Her retail neighbors include Richard Tyler and Mark Wong Nark.
“We’ve had calls from kids who browse and have seen our store name listed by certain vendors we carry. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” she added, “because it’s just not going to go away. I see cable TV and computer-land acting as one, as the next step.”
A friend is helping her set up the site, Zamaryonov said, and she is trying to find time to do her part: “I’d like to do a full biography of the store and the designers. And do a little biography on the neighborhood and how it’s grown, and why we like it.”
In addition to “a few visuals of what we have and what we’re excited about for next season,” she plans to offer “some kind of personal shopping service.
“It would go beyond what we have here,” she said. “If NYSE doesn’t have it, I’m not opposed to going to a store across the street or across town to get it. I might be in complete dreamland, but I see it as providing a service.”
Unlike some other boutique operators exploring the Web world, Zamaryonov said she is an online amateur. “I don’t know what’s out there. I don’t surf,” she said. “But I figure you’ve got to start somewhere. I just see all this going faster than the speed of light.”