ONLINE BEAUTY SELLERS ARE SCRAMBLING TO PROTECT THEIR SHOPPERS — AND THEIR BRAND IDENTITIES — FROM THE MARKET’S CHAOS.
Byline: Kerry Diamond
As the struggle rages online to win the hearts and wallets of beauty junkies, chaos on the battlefield threatens to leave consumers dazed and confused.
Recent skirmishes — Estee Lauder Cos. bought Gloss.com, Idealab acquired a controlling interest in Eve.com and a group of New York investors bought Beautyscene.com — are just a prelude to the consolidation of sites to come.
Meanwhile, the action is only going to intensify. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton is getting ready to launch Eluxury.com, which is expected to carry several of the conglomerate’s prestige beauty brands. Saks Fifth Avenue, a favorite of beauty vendors, will launch its site this summer. Ibeauty.com is looking to hire some high-powered talent to help the company make the transition from a gray market resource to a respected player in the beauty space.
As a result, beauty e-tailers are working overtime to distinguish their sites and help cure any customer confusion.
“All the sites will be dramatically different within the next six months,” predicted Roger Barnett, founder of Beauty.com.
Finding one’s groove will not be an easy task. Department and specialty stores, like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Barneys New York, have had decades to establish themselves with consumers. Web sites don’t have the luxury of time because the field is so crowded. The competition for customers — and for the venture capital needed to stay afloat — is intense.
It doesn’t help that so many sites have similar names: Ebeauty.com, Ibeauty.com, Beauty.com, Beautyscene.com, Beautyjungle.com, Beautyhabit.com, Beautycafe.com, Beautyofasite.com. It might not be a problem for the serious beauty junkie, who can tell the difference between Lorac and L’Oreal with her eyes closed. But for anyone else, it’s become hard to discern which is which.
Even Beautybuzz.com, which hosts a popular beauty bulletin board, is affected by the muddle. “We get so many e-mails from people that say, ‘I thought you sold products,”‘ noted Maria Lawson, one of Beautybuzz.com’s founders.
Sites like Eve.com, Gloss.com and Bluemercury.com may not have to worry about being lumped in with the “beauty-something” e-tail pack, but they do have identity issues of their own.
“We looked at other spaces, like the pet space and the book space, and we decided that we wanted a name that was really distinctive, like Amazon,” explained Varsha Rao, co-founder of Eve.com. “It takes longer to build a brand around a name where you have to educate people as to what it is. But in the long run, you build a much more distinctive brand.”
Anyone who watches television or picks up a newspaper knows the most popular way to build Web site recognition is through advertising. But with the dot-coms flooding every advertising medium, remembering what company goes with which ad is also a challenge. Is the colorful Rorschach test the Sephora.com ad? Or is it the ad with the big bright peacock feather? And which company has the ad with the tight shot of a model’s face? Is it Beauty.com, Sephora.com, Beautyjungle.com or Eve.com’s ad for Nars? (Actually, it’s all four.)
At a party last year, one e-tailer was complimented by a friend who said he loved his Web site’s advertising. He politely thanked him, even though the friend was referring not to his site’s ad campaign, but to Beautyscene.com’s ad that featured a model wrapped with a mouse cable.
Even those who know the industry inside and out can get confused about the ads. Beautybuzz’s Lawson, who praised Beautyjungle.com’s ads for being so distinctive, said it was clever of the company to spotlight up-and-coming musicians like Bif Naked in its ads; in fact, it was Gloss.com that ran the ad featuring Ms. Naked, not Beautyjungle.
Some sites are establishing themselves through the brands they carry. Spacadet.com, a small e-business run by esthetician Jillian Ratensperger, specializes in fun, quirky brands like Dirty Girl and Loofah Loafers. Beautyhabit.com carries a tightly edited collection of obscure brands like Bazaar des Senteurs, Borlind of Germany and Christian Tortu. Beautyjungle.com features both mass and class brands in an attempt to mimic the way women shop in the real world.
Beautybuzz’s Lawson said brand selection is extremely important. Among the women who frequently post on the Beautybuzz boards, she noted, “Eve.com, Sephora.com and Beautyjungle.com are three of the more popular sites. The main reason is the lines they carry. It’s so hard to find certain brands. I live in Indianapolis, and there are so many things I can’t get, like Nars, Vincent Longo and Givenchy.”
The majority of the beauty e-tailers specialize in small, niche companies because the big players — Estee Lauder, Clinique, Lancome — prefer their own Internet sites to those of the multibrand sites. In April, Estee Lauder announced plans to turn Gloss.com into a cybermall featuring all the Lauder brands, from MAC to Jo Malone. Lancome, so far, has stuck with its own e-tail site.
As a result, the same brands tend to be found over multiple sites. Bloom, Joey New York and Heavy Duty, for example, can be found on Beauty.com, Eve.com, Ibeauty.com, Sephora.com, Beautyjungle.com, Beautyscene.com and Beautycafe.com.
Joey Roer, chief executive officer of Joey New York, said the company didn’t want to limit itself to one or two sites. “Our strategy was to go on all of them because the Internet is a great way to shop,” she said. “My whole purpose is to get our products into everybody’s hands and get their skin healthy.”
Some e-tailers have insisted on exclusivity agreements, and certain brands have been happy to comply. Beauty.com has secured Fresh and Face Stockholm on an exclusive basis, according to Barnett. Eve.com, a pure play site, has an exclusive on Nars, but the makeup artist brand can be found on Sephora.com and Bluemercury.com, both of which have stores that already carry Nars.
Barnett believes the vendors will re-examine their Internet strategies over the next few months as more sites are consolidated or acquired. Brands sold on Gloss.com are pondering their fate on that site. Lauder executives have said they will sell non-Lauder brands on Gloss, but they have not decided which ones.
So what’s a Web site to do? Many are trying to connect with their customers through customization. Beauty.com greets customers by first name each time they log onto the site, and Eve.com has developed a program for frequent shoppers called Eve Points. Sephora.com plans to send out targeted e-mails — based on such things as geography — rather than the general e-mails sent out by many of its competitors. Sephora customers are encouraged to register their e-mail addresses at Sephora locations around the country.
When it comes to e-mail, said Andrea Pomerantz Lustig, editor in chief of Sephora.com, “Shorter is better and more direct is better. Nobody has time to waste. They want the information and they want it fast.”
To capitalize on the fact that it is a brick-and-click organization, the French perfumery chain has published a hard-copy version of its online magazine, Beauty Cyberspace. The magazine will be distributed in-store, and special events tied to the publication’s features will be held throughout each month. “Our Web audience is walking in and out of our store every day,” said Lustig. “Why not capture that?”
Sites are also differentiating themselves by constantly evolving. Later this month, Eve.com is launching an apothecary section in conjunction with Bigelow, the New York pharmacy, that will feature a selection of hard-to-find toiletries. To give Beautyjungle.com some international flair, the site is in the process of adding a new section called Esprit Francais that will feature French brands like L’Occitane.
Sephora.com’s new look launched in April. The site now has a black background on every page and a cleaner, more streamlined look on its home page. Beauty.com will unveil a site-wide renovation this June that incorporates technology from its parent, Drugstore.com.
Regardless of how the sites look, how sexy their advertising is or what brands they carry, they are nowhere without good customer service, noted Beautybuzz’s Lawson.
“These sites have to be on their toes,” she said. “If they are not, their customers are going to get online and complain on every bulletin board out there. There are some bad sites, and we can tell you which ones from the messages we see posted.”