SMALLER SITES TARGET HIGH END

Byline: Katherine Bowers

LOS ANGELES — Can exclusive items, a new focus on customer service and more precisely targeted search functions woo luxury-minded consumers to shop online at smaller-scale e-boutiques?
A new crop of regionally based luxe sites believe they can and are out to show it’s time for purveyors of upscale products to let go of the myth that consumers won’t look for — let alone purchase — luxury merchandise and services online.
These players include a handful of sites, based here, including Moxly, a start-up multichannel provider of products in the personal care arena; it’seWonderfulLife.com, which aims to give the Net’s denizens a taste of Hollywood by selling the furnishings, fashions, accessories and cosmetics of small, Los Angeles-based companies, and Style365, which opened in February, as well as Splendora.com, a personal-care Web site with headquarters in San Francisco.
These sites are armed with new plans based on responsible spending, a sharp focus on a target audience and a multichannel merchandising and marketing strategy. Their primary challenge is essentially the same: how to stand out from the pack in a sea of marketing noise.
Certainly, it’s a tall order. The Nasdaq’s plunge in April has tightened financiers’ purse strings, while the recent arrival of megaplayers such as saksfifthavenue.com, eLuxury.com and Luxlook.com will make life still more challenging for the newcomers.
Nonetheless, in the hallowed retail tradition — whether online or off — the fledgling Web ventures exude an air of optimism, figuring they can exploit the Net by offering better merchandising than the competition.
“We’ve been able to look at [existing] e-companies, learn from their mistakes and ask ourselves, how can we do this better?” said Moxly co-founder Mary Alice Haney. Moxly is in the process of finalizing the details of its launch, a project that will include a soft-bound directory of recommendations, an appointment hotline and a Web site.
The book — tentatively titled The Moxly Manual — will be published by City & Co., with an initial print run of 7,500 copies expected to hit stores in time for the holiday season. The hotline and the Web site will go up simultaneously in the fourth quarter, supported by promotions, and, Haney hopes, word-of-mouth buzz. The company is in the process of hiring customer service “beauty concierges,” who will staff the phones and Web site to make recommendations and set appointments.
Splendora.com, a San Francisco-based company, also is bidding to brand itself in the personal-pampering and style arenas. The site went live Aug. 1, as noted, with directories of what they believe are the most fabulous things to do in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Site members pay a subscription fee in return for some discounts and VIP treatment at certain spas.
Style365.com, which went live online last February, is hoping an infusion of e-commerce will strengthen its attempt to become an online arbiter of style. The site, which makes recommendations of products in 15 categories, including fashion, started selling exclusive, limited-edition items Aug. 30. Initial items for sale include a Tres Flores belt with an oversize champagne-color rhinestone buckle and gold hoop earrings with Swarovski crystals.
However, Style365’s goodies will be for sale only on alternating Wednesdays — a frequency at which it may prove difficult to attract a steady customer. Currently, the site gets about a half million hits per month, with visitors looking at an average of eight pages, according to company co-founder Terron Schaefer.
Style365 has the sleek, polished look of a glossy magazine and no blinking ad banners, which Schaefer disdains. Advertisers like Bottega Veneta and Tiffany & Co., to name two, run smaller versions of the ad pages they run in print campaigns for a fraction of the price. When a viewer clicks on an ad, they are linked to the advertisers’ Web site.
The key for Style365 will be to keep the hits — and the advertisers — coming. The company has suspended its own ad campaign, a stylish black and white campaign shot by Bruce Weber, but a company spokeswoman said that the firm plans to run advertising again starting in the fourth quarter.
According to Heather Dougherty, digital commerce analyst at Internet consultant Jupiter Communications, what “recommendation” business models have going for them is the generous profit margin generally brought by luxury goods and services. It’s a margin that allows for a commission to be paid to a referring site. However, as visitors bookmark their favorite recommendations or as brick-and-mortar businesses like spas and hair salons launch their own Web sites to take e-reservations, there may be a diminished role for sites that are offering recommendations alone.
“Right now, there certainly is the need for an intermediary,” Dougherty said. “Five years down the line? I don’t know that it will be needed.”
Other sites, such as it’seWonderfulLife, which went live Aug. 25, are emphasizing boutique-style customer service to go with a hand-picked mix of specialty items. Company founder Dina Tevas-Ingram said the site will periodically auction off goods used on movie sites or during high-profile entertainment events.
One of Tevas-Ingram’s recent coups is gaining exclusive distribution rights for the golden snakeskin bracelet made for Savage Garden’s lead singer Darren Hayes. “These things are exclusively online with us. You can’t get these things unless you drive to the showroom or to the single store…or you know someone,” said Tevas-Ingram, who happens to know Adrienne Teeguarden, the bracelet’s designer.
The site also carries Eduardo Lucero designs and is introducing two new Lucero lines: a maternity collection that debuted on it’seWonderfulLife on Oct. 1 and a range of wedding gowns that is expected to be available starting in mid-January.
As for customer service, Tevas-Ingram said that’s where a lot of the company’s capital is going.
“We are not going to do what drowned the other dot-coms, which was to put all the money into advertising and none into customer service,” said Tevas-Ingram, citing the fact that once an order is placed through the site, someone from the company calls the customer to confirm.
“That’s what every good boutique does,” she added. “They get to know their clients, they remember birthdays and special occasions, and when there is something new, they invite [the customer] to come and see.”
Tevas-Ingram hopes to overturn another prevailing belief in Netland: that goods ordered online must be delivered immediately. It’seWonderfulLife.com will not carry any inventory — everything will be made-to-order and delivered in approximately six weeks.

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