Worried gift-givers receive help on Web Online: That's where gift ideas are growing, alongside the entrepreneurial spirit.

December 03, 1998|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Daniel Pohl recalls being panic-stricken as he wandered through a crowded shopping mall just days before Christmas last year. His trouble: What to buy his wife and other family members for Christmas?

Later, he confided to his wife, Julie, that he wished there were an accessible, reliable guide for helping stumped husbands come up with gift ideas sure to be a hit. His wife argued that many people -- not just husbands -- might find such a guide useful. After some encouragement from her husband, she decided to make a business out of not only providing gift ideas but also a convenient way to order them using the fastest-growing medium of the day, the Internet.

Today, Julie Pohl operates the recently launched Christmas gift idea Web site, with the aptly named address Whattobuyforchristmas.com.

Pohl doesn't actually sell any of the gift items directly from the Web site; it's what's known as a "portal" site, meaning that it offers links to other businesses' Web addresses where customers can order gift items.

Launched three weeks ago, Whattobuyforchristmas.com is among dozens of Web sites angling to grab a slice of the cyber-shopping trend this holiday season.

Others include Christmas.com, Holidaytree.com and FindGift.com. Several of the major web search engine outfits, such as Alta Vista, have also launched holiday shopping guides. Personal computer makers also are jumping into the online gift trend, as evidenced by Hewlett Packard's Shopping Village portal site.

Pohl views the competition as validation that on-line shopping is here to stay and will flourish as consumer acceptance grows.

Her main priority this season, she said, is building the Web site's name recognition and an association with reliable, quality retailers, rather than sales and profit.

She hopes that one of the keys to success will be the gift idea service.

"I think there are a lot of people who are so time-pressed at this time of year and just hate the idea of the mall crawl," said Pohl. "They want good gift ideas and a convenient way to order gifts."

The site has Top 10 gift ideas for women, men, children and a catch-all category called "For Them."

For example, the Top 10 "For Her" page lists cashmere-lined gloves from Brooks Brothers, pearl earrings from Lands' End, a silk and cashmere sweater from Nordstrom. Customers can click on the item they want to order and are sent directly to the retailer's order form.

The site also lists gifts in price ranges from "Under $25" to "Over $500" to help locate gift ideas.

"One of the main things I focused on was choosing quality products, rather than on the latest trinket that's trendy," said Pohl. "I want the site to be known for quality and reliability."

Internet analyst Jupiter Communications says a trend favoring Pohl's venture is that retail sales over the Internet should double to $2.3 billion this holiday season, from the $1.1 billion spent last year.

Diane Schreiber, a spokeswoman for Jupiter Communications, said company analysts are expecting much of the increase to occur as a result of gift buying, a market niche that retailers have had difficulty tapping over the Internet.

Pohl and others hoping to make a living from online shopping services may find the going difficult -- at least for a while.

For one thing, Jupiter's research shows that just 16 percent of online retail sales are for gifts. Also, Americans who are actually buying items via the Internet remain a minority group of shoppers, according to Boston Consulting Group. Less than 1 percent of all shopping was done over the Internet during the last six months, the consulting group found in a survey.

Odyssey, a San Francisco-based marketing company, found in another survey that almost 90 percent of the nation's households don't plan to buy anything over the Internet in the next year.

Odyssey and Boston Consulting found that shoppers are chiefly wary of online shopping because of concern over whether their credit card numbers can be securely transmitted. Also, shoppers are balking at ordering products via the Internet because they must pay store prices and then are tagged with shipping costs.

But some industry analysts are bullish on growth prospects for Internet gift buying. Some project that 40 percent of Americans with home computers will shop for holiday gifts online this season, up from an estimated 10 percent during last year's holiday season.

Despite shopper resistance and the infancy of the medium, Pohl has found her Web site embraced by a number of big-name retailers.

Retailers that have signed on for advertising and portal site links include clothiers J. Crew and Eddie Bauer, bookseller Amazon.com, upscale gift store Brookstone and online music seller Music Boulevard.

Her company, backed by family savings and start-up costs of about $200,000, has attracted interest from private investors.

The business plan envisions making money by selling advertising and portal links and garnering a small percentage of each sale made as a result of a customer accessing a retailer through the Whattobuyforchristmas.com Web site.

When the Christmas season closes out, Pohl plans to parley the site into a gift-idea center for other occasions, such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

For now, the site is seeing stronger-than-expected visitor traffic, said Pohl.

Last week, it logged 8,000 "hits" per day. A hit is measured every time a visitor accesses a separate page on the Web site. Most of the traffic is coming from the United States, but Pohl said the site has also had visits from abroad.

It's unclear yet how many visitors are actually making purchases.

After Christmas, Pohl expects to get statistics from advertisers and portal site affiliates showing how much Whattobuyforchristmas.com customers spent on gifts.

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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