Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — A most tribal dot-com launch event took place at Manhattan’s Studio 54.
The event last week was sponsored by, a bargain hunter Web site hawking designer styles that hopes to fuse the going-going-gone hucksterism of Home Shopping Network with the frenzy of a Filene’s basement supersale.
To kick off the launch festivities, commissioned Jeff Probst, one of the contestants of the hit reality TV show “Survivor,” to emcee the event, which turned the legendary former discotheque into a Gilligan’s Island-style tropical oasis, complete with (rather scraggly) mini-palm trees, sand, jungle music and SmartBargains staffers sporting straw hula skirts. The occasion was a shopping spree in which bargain-hungry New Yorkers were offered the chance to rummage through boxes filled with Manolo Blahnik shoes, Fendi bags, and D&G sportswear, and take their shot at winning the launch party’s contest prize: a one-week trip for four to a deserted island off the coast of New Zealand.
Taking the stage behind a podium made out of twigs, “Survivor” veteran Probst announced “I’m fairly picky about the things I choose to get involved in,” in this case,, which Probst described as “an outlet mall, except online.” Then, on this hallowed disco ground, Probst directed the crowd of about 70 people to forage through one set of boxes, filled with plastic rats, which in turn led them to another set of gift boxes, filled with sundry fashion items. Pandemonium set in as the ravenous contestants jostled each other, threw boxes in midair, and generally behaved like looters at a Radio Shack. “They almost killed me,” cried one elderly woman overwhelmed by the commotion.
After the frenzy died down, one young woman claimed the New Zealand vacation prize behind a gauntlet of TV news crews.
Contest aside, “Survivor” is a decidedly apt metaphor for the Darwinist world of e-tailing that has entered, with pundits and analysts alike betting on which dot-coms will be voted off the online retail destination come Christmas. But according to president John Kerney, the fledgling discount e-tailer is a veritable tossed salad of business models.
“SmartBargains takes the best of a Filene’s basement wedding sale, throws in a touch of eBay, mixes it with a European bazaar and adds the entertainment concept of a QVC,” explained Kerney. On the Web site, SmartBargains’ assortments fall into five categories: fashion, electronics, home, jewelry and WOW, an umbrella category that highlights offbeat products. Most items range in price from $30 to $150 and are offered TV-shopping style, in limited quantity and for a limited time.
Kerney’s optimism is buoyed by SmartBargains’ strategic partnership with Gordon Brothers Group, the leading liquidator of excess consumer goods. Michael Frieze, chairman and acting chief executive officer of SmartBargains, has served in several executive positions at Gordon Brothers, while Kerney is Gordon Brothers’ former chief operating officer.
“I realize that the bloom has been off the e-tail rose for a while now, and I only wanted to go online if we can be the leader in online closeout retail,” said Kerney. “Gordon Brothers gives us a merchandising legacy, and I have the most seasoned closeout buyers out there.”
In mid-September, SmartBargains struck up a strategic partnership with America Online and is now featured as a premier merchant partner in Shop@AOL’s new Bargain Basement area. More than a simple tenancy agreement, AOL has made an equity investment in SmartBargains. Though Kerney would not comment on the financial details of that deal, he told WWD the arrangement calls for AOL members to have exclusive access to the SmartBargains site at Shop@AOL, and to receive exclusive, first looks at a selection of SmartBargains merchandise.
In keeping with the prevailing shakeout-speak, Kerney took pains to play down the Silicon Valley factor in his enterprise. “We don’t want to be technology innovators, we want to be direct marketing innovators,” he said.
“We don’t view this as just a dot-com. In fact, we’ll be hitting our stride when you receive a message on your BlackBerry [personal digital assistant] that says ‘Hey, we know you’re a skier, we have a special deal on ski gear, can we reserve something for you?”‘

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