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August 3, 2004: Online Clothes Lines

Niche apparel retailers share common strategy -- make online shopping simple.

The apparel industry has always been an intensive, competitive business. Customers can be fickle -- this year's hot fall line is often passé a few months later. Margins are small, and even companies that manufacture much of their apparel overseas often find themselves financially squeezed. For every Calvin Klein that succeeds, there are hundreds of companies that don't make it.

Creating brand awareness is paramount. Here's a snapshot of how three widely different types of companies use the Internet to capture both first-time and repeat customers.

Lands' End

Land's End was online early -- the company's Web site went live July 17, 1995 as an experiment to see if customers would purchase apparel online.

Less than 100 products were available then -- some turtlenecks, a few chinos, a small sampling of men's dress shirts. But after only a month, Lands' End had generated more than $160 million in online sales.

The Dodgeville, Wis.-based company, best known for its colorful catalogues (269 million mailed last year), also received 231,000 emails. Each of those received a personal response, says Suzanne Fedoruk, a company spokesperson.

Although the company wouldn't provide current online sales figures, Lands' End claims it is now the world's largest (in business volume) apparel Web site. In addition, Land's End sites have been launched in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France and Ireland. A separate Business Outfitters Web site offers company incentives, rewards, gifts and group apparel.

The secret to the company's rapid online growth rate is simple -- make Internet shopping easy for the customer. To achieve these objectives, Lands' End has introduced numerous interactive shopping tools to help boost traffic. Some of these include:

My Virtual Model™ -- Once customers provide some basic measurements, they can then create 3D models that are applied to an individual's personal virtual model. Customers can then see how an outfit might look on them. They can also get second opinions by emailing the images to family and friends.

My Personal Shopper -- Lets visitors create what Lands' End calls a 'personal wardrobe consultant.' Customers answer some questions about what they like to wear; a 'personal shopper' then recommends various outfits based on the data.

Lands' End Live™ -- Allows customers to talk online with a customer service representative.

Shop with a Friend™ -- Enables two shoppers to browse, communicate and add items together online and add items to a single shopping basket.

Swim Finder -- If you are phobic about trying on swimsuits in department stores, this feature could give you peace of mind. You can search by bra type, body shape, height of leg opening, even by what Lands' End calls "anxiety zones" -- particular body areas you'd like to either highlight or, short of sunbathing at night, discreetly hide.

Fedoruk says Lands' End also has increased site traffic via its affiliate network. Participants earn a percentage of every sale that results from a click-through from their site.

Charming Shoppes, Inc.

Based in Bensalem, Pa., near Philadelphia, Charming Shoppes focuses primarily on plus-size women's apparel through three brands: Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Catherines Plus Sizes. The company operates 2,233 stores in 48 states, and had sales in the first quarter of this year of $592,738,000 up 5 percent over the first quarter of 2003.

Robin Baskin, vice president Internet Marketing, says the company's goal is to keep things simple, yet intuitive for the online shopper. Baskin says Charming Shoppe uses Flash judiciously because many customers may not have newer computers or high-speed Internet connectivity. 

Charming Shoppes does a lot of direct mail that is very expensive to produce. So to leverage exposure, the company promotes the Web site by tagging the URL or prominently displaying a message in the literature, urging customers to shop online. "Fast Find," numbers on each product in various direct mail pieces help customers find those items quickly on the Web site.

"It's a call to action for the customer," Baskin says. "Our goal is to promote ease of shopping online."

Baskin says the company gets about five million visits each month for all three sites. Fashion Bug customers can't shop online yet, but Baskin says the site will have ecommerce capabilities later this month.

One promotion launched March 1 on the Lane Bryant site proved wildly successful in drawing traffic. To celebrate the Lane Bryant line reaching the century mark and the Ford Modeling Agency turning 25, the companies banded together to launch a nationwide model search. It was conducted on the Lane Bryant site and by direct mail.

Customers clicked on a link slugged "Model Search," filled out a registration form and emailed a digital photo. One hundred quarterfinalists and then 25 semifinalists were selected. Five finalists will be chosen in the next 30 days. The winner receives a $25,000 modeling contract, and will be featured in a Lane Bryant holiday advertising campaign. Although Baskin wouldn't reveal actual statistics, she says "thousands" signed up nationwide.

"It was a great way to not only tie-in two landmark company anniversaries, but also helps reinforce brand awareness for both," Baskin says. has carved out a unique market niche on the Internet. The Salt Lake City, Utah, company, established in 1999, bills itself as an online "closeout" retailer that provides brand name merchandise for sale. The publicly traded company offers an extensive array of goods in addition to apparel, including home and garden products, jewelry and watches, sporting goods, electronics and computers. Annual gross merchandise sales are more than $70 million.

The company's "Apparel, Shoes & Accessories" link is one of the most popular. Customers can shop by brand using a menu bar featuring more than 40 well-known companies. There are also direct links to retailers such as Burberry, Prada, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss. There are separate sections for Women's, Men's, Footwear, Handbags & More, Children's and Luggage. Women's, for example, has separate icons for everything from Dresses to Shirts to Sweaters.

Viewers who click on Dresses can choose from dozens of different products, each of which displays the list price,'s price and the total savings.

The company has inked deals with other companies to help drive traffic. Last March, rolled out what it calls Daily Deals for Verizon Wireless 'Get It Now' customers. Each day, selects items from its inventory, further reduces the prices and makes them available to subscribers via Verizon's wireless phones (LG VX4400 and Samsung SCH-a530 models). Verizon customers pay $1.99 per month for the service; they can also download photos so they can review the merchandise before purchasing. customers apparently like buying apparel from the company -- a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index ranked the company fourth among all participating U.S. retailers.

Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; London, United Kingdom; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics.

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