Shopping goes online, upscale

Fashion: Now you can browse the Web aisles of Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom from the comfort of home.

September 24, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Virginia Barnett heads straight to Neiman Marcus whenever the urge arises to buy a $500 Ferragamo bag for herself or a $2,500 Prada suit for her boyfriend.

But instead of driving to the store near her home in Fort Worth, Texas, Barnett logs on to the Internet, checks out the Web site www.neimanmarcus.com and e-mails her online personal shopper David Isaacs to make her purchase. Barnett, 26, said she doesn't miss the perks that usually draw a customer to Neiman Marcus -- an attentive sales assistant stroking her ego and tending to her every shopping need.

What the Web site offers, Barnett said, is infinitely more important: convenience.

"I can e-mail [Isaacs] from home at 2 a.m. that I saw something on the Web site and I'm interested in finding out more about it," said Barnett, a corporate head-hunter. "I don't have time to hunt things down on my own. David knows what I need, he knows what I want and he knows I'll spend the money."

In fact, Barnett likes the online shopping arrangement so much, she hasn't set foot in a Neiman Marcus store in more than five months. Luxury shopping the way Barnett does it is the latest trend in high-end retailing right now, as retailers like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue expand their empires onto the Internet.

While lower-end retailers like JC Penney, Sears and J. Crew have been selling on Web sites for several years, luxury stores have chosen to wait to make sure that they can replicate their renowned customer service online. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus launched their Web sites within the last year; Saks followed suit last month.

So now customers seeking that $12,000 Carolina Herrera fur tuxedo jacket or that $2,155 Dolce & Gabbana fox-trim plaid coat can buy it without stepping out of the home or office.

"Our customers are increasingly shopping online, and it's important for us to be there," said Nordstrom.com spokeswoman Shasha Richardson. "It's not that they're choosing to shop online over doing it in the stores. They're doing both, and we're offering more choices for the customer to interact with us."

Industry experts say that high-end retailers chose not to leap onto the Internet when others were in 1997 and 1998 because they wanted to be careful. With the troubles of high-profile sites like Boo.com -- an ambitious British venture to sell designer apparel online internationally that went through more than $100 million before shutting down in May -- established luxury retailers wanted to ensure success before launching Web operations. Lord & Taylor still is studying e-commerce and has no immediate plans to start selling online.

"The high-end companies smartly decided to sit this out and let other people make mistakes," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology at the Washington-based National Retail Federation. "But they also knew that by and large their best customers were probably not on the Web at that moment anyway. Their best customers, a lot of them are successful older women. In '97 and '98, most of us who were on the Web were either on the Web at work or were very young."

But today, the online population has begun to span all ages. Hotka added that many customers don't mind making large purchases on the Internet, especially if it's with retailers like Saks or Neiman Marcus, who are known for high-quality customer service.

Kenny Kurtzman, CEO of Ashford.com, which sells designer watches, jewelry and accessories online, said those online today are open to buying luxury goods, so retailers should provide them online options. In a survey of 4,000 Internet users that the Houston-based company commissioned in May, 50 percent of the respondents had bought luxury goods online or in stores in the last two years. Many of those surveyed reported spending $250 or more online for a single item within the past year. Ashford.com, launched in 1989, had sales of $40 million last year.

Kurtzman added that not only have Americans become more Web-savvy and accustomed to making purchases online, their attitudes toward buying luxury items have changed as well.

"In the past, luxury goods were really more of a status symbol, like, 'I'm buying a Rolex because my neighbor has a Rolex, and this is an indication that I've made it,' " Kurtzman said. "Now, the mentality is very much different. We're seeing that people want to give luxury goods to themselves or their friends as a reward or recognition of hard work, like, 'I really worked hard on this project, and I really deserve to give myself a watch.' "

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