SURVEY: E-TAILERS CAN EXPECT SOLID HOLIDAY

Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — With the prospect of aggressive store promotions and a tough financing climate threatening to spoil Internet merchants’ wishes for a productive — let alone profitable — holiday, there still appears to be a glimmer of hope for apparel e-tailers to deliver some solid results for the season.
At least, that’s the picture painted by two new studies of Net users, one conducted by shopping portal BizRate.com, the other by Harris Interactive in conjunction with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray.
BizRate — which recommends products, promotions and exclusive deals as well as linking cybershoppers with online merchants — has identified apparel as one of a handful of categories it expects to realize the fastest-growing sales on the Web for holiday. The others are computers, toys, home goods, garden supplies, food and wine.
Computers are again likely to lead holiday business on the Web, BizRate projected, estimating the sector’s volume will reach $1.85 billion for the period between Thanksgiving and Dec. 26. BizRate expects that computers and toys will be the earliest holiday purchases, with many of those items sold ahead of December, based on a recent survey of its shoppers.
A spokeswoman for BizRate said Friday the Los Angeles-based portal was still completing its estimate of apparel dollar volume for holiday. She noted that last year, apparel e-tailers rang up sales of roughly $240 million between Nov. 26 and Dec. 26. The peak selling days for apparel online during holiday 1999, she added, were Dec. 11 through Dec. 14.
And while apparel was among 12 of 14 merchandise categories canvassed by Harris Interactive and U.S. Bancorp that registered declines in sales online between August and September, it registered the slimmest drop, easing only 0.2 percent from a volume of $277 million in August to $276 million in September. By comparison, the average decline for those dozen categories was 12.9 percent, with the steepest falloff experienced by computer hardware and peripherals, off 39.1 percent, to sales of $226 million online in September against $371 million in August.
Categories logging increases in September sales online, according to the Harris Interactive e-commercePulse study, were toys, up 9.7 percent to volume of $43 million versus $39 million, and fitness and sports gear, up 2.4 percent to transactions valued at $30 million against $29 million.
Harris conducts its e-commercePulse study each quarter by surveying the online and offline purchasing behavior of roughly 100,000 adult Internet users of more than 260 e-commerce sites in 14 vertical merchandise markets. For the September data, Harris interviewed 36,768 adult users between Sept. 28 and Oct. 9.
One considerable constraint on e-sales of apparel has been eased with the slew of fashion commerce sites that have opened this year, as well as with the relaunch of existing sites, many of them with significantly larger assortments of apparel. Since just this June, for example, fashion sites have been mounted by eLuxury.com, a joint venture between Bernard Arnault’s Internet operating and investment arm, EuropatWeb, and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton; by Luxlook.com, which is partially funded by Holding di Partecipazioni Industriali; by SaksFifthAvenue.com, and by Fashion500.com.
Meanwhile, numerous sites, including NeimanMarcus.com and Nordstrom.com, have been relaunched with bigger assortments, and still others, such as Boo.com, plan to try again for holiday. Boo, as reported, is set to reopen online today under its new ownership, Fashionmall.com, which is based here (see related story, page 28).
A key question facing Web merchants for the heavy shopping season just ahead is: When their customers visit, shop and purchase, will those sites be able to deliver the goods? It’s an issue that has posed a big problem for them during the past two holiday seasons and continues to loom large.
For example, 73 percent of the people surveyed by BizRate said they will be shopping online this holiday to avoid crowds, while 64 percent listed the option to shop around the clock as the primary reason they’ll be prowling the Web for the season. Those motivators suggest strongly that if disappointed with the service they get, customers will again abandon those sites with a few clicks and shop elsewhere, as they have during the past two winter holiday periods.
Further, 59 percent of those surveyed said late delivery was a “major concern” with shopping online.
In retrospect, said the BizRate respondents, their biggest disappointments in shopping the Web during holiday 1999 included slow Web sites, with 48 percent citing that as the main glitch they experienced; out-of-stock merchandise, listed by 31 percent; late deliveries, 30 percent, and poor service, 27 percent.
“Last year, many [online] merchants failed to meet shoppers’ expectations,” noted Seth Geiger, vice president of professional services at BizRate.com. “Consumers wanted convenience but found many Web sites unprepared to handle their business. This year should be different. Merchants have done their homework, and shoppers should be ready to try again.”

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