Women on Web slow to purchase

Dilemma: While females flock to the Internet, sites targeting them - and their dollars - are struggling.

April 09, 2001|By Shelley Emling | Shelley Emling,Cox News Service

For new mom Nadia Leather, the Internet has become as essential as disposable diapers.

When she was pregnant, the thought of schlepping through malls to purchase baby paraphernalia when she could barely squeeze behind the steering wheel was hardly appealing, so she turned to Web sites that peddled products to expectant mothers.

"I bought the crib. I bought the toys. I bought the stroller. I bought everything I needed on the Internet," said the Manhattan resident, whose daughter was born last November. "When family came to visit, I bought an air mattress on the Internet, and it was delivered within 24 hours."

Like Leather, women everywhere are flocking to the Web for everything from news to nutrition advice, their numbers surging to more than half of all Internet surfers. In particular, girls between the ages of 12 and 17 and women over 55 are logging on in record numbers.

Yet more than five years into the climb toward a so-called Women's Web, many sites aimed specifically at women no longer have both feet planted firmly on the ledge. Instead, they are barely hanging on by their fingernails.

Despite the growing number of women online, studies show that fewer than 10 percent of women make purchases on the Internet, although the number is growing. Even worse, when women do make online purchases, they tend to spend a lot less than men. This hardly bodes well for women's sites that earn the greatest share of their revenue from advertising.

Analysts say full-service women's portals are struggling toward profitability even as sites by the Big Three - iVillage Inc., Oxygen Media and the Women.Com Networks - continue to attract an impressive number of loyal users.

There's no question women are relying more on the Web for everything from e-mail to parental guidance. More older women are surfing for health-related information. Teens are heading to sites that feature fashion and music content, and also to sites that allow them to swap their personal stories.

Online chat rooms and bulletin boards - which offer support to everyone from cancer victims to single mothers - are especially appealing to a growing female audience of all ages.

"I'm a tremendous fan of the big sites like iVillage and Oxygen," said Robyn Spizman, the Atlanta-based co-author of "300 Incredible Things for Women on the Internet."

"Just today I logged onto iVillage and saw an article about Home Depot's stock being on the rise, and I went ahead and bought some stock - and it took me less than three minutes," she said.

But despite fans like Spizman, many online businesses designed to attract women have experienced layoffs and seen their stocks go into free fall in recent months.

On Feb. 5, a beleaguered iVillage announced a $36 million merger with rival Women.com. Although these are two of the 50 most-visited sites on the Web, together attracting nearly 4 million visitors a month, they've had to scramble to survive in a harsh dot-com environment.

But Nancy Evans, co-founder and editor in chief at iVillage, doesn't seem fazed. She said iVillage has always managed to attract advertising from top companies, and would continue to do so.

"There's just a softening in the market right now," she said.

It's not clear how long advertisers will continue to pump money into women's sites when there are still so few women making purchases online.

Without a steady stream of advertising revenue, it's increasingly difficult for women's sites to amass the mountain of moola needed to produce content that spans everything from tax tips to fitness plans. They're facing hard choices about staff and editorial direction in an effort to draw the most traffic with the least amount of money.

For its part, Oxygen.com plans to place a new emphasis on entertainment, an obvious choice, since Oxygen Media runs a women's cable TV network headlined by Oprah Winfrey.

"We're finding that women are much more interested in having fun on the Web," said Karen Ramspacher, vice president of creative research for Oxygen.com.

Therefore, the site will start offering women things like a behind-the-scenes look at a TV program.

Ramspacher insisted that more women are shopping on the Internet - it's just taken them a while to become comfortable doing so.

Last October, Oxygen launched Shop 02, a "shopping bot" service that searches hundreds of sites for specific types of products, as well as product reviews from around the Web.

In general, some analysts say all-encompassing sites that try to be all things to all women no longer work, and that they're spread so thin that women will eventually gravitate toward full-service portals that are gender-neutral.

But Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research, said unlike broad-based print magazines - which work because there are so few of them - on the Web there are thousands of specialized sites, making the one-stop-shopping approach unnecessary. If you want stock tips, go to Motleyfool.com. If you want horoscopes, go to Astrology.com.

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