Monday, June 4, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle

Women's apparel sites up ante with customized and interactive features

In the world of fashion, where looks count for everything, apparel Web sites often put style over substance. Everyone's got a gimmick. The Web sites will automatically download software such as Flash Player 4 or Shockwave for animated, moving images.

Issey Mikaye's Pleats Please (, winner of a fashion Web site award , begins with a screenful of swirling shoes that can leave one slightly queasy -- and no option to buy them yet. The fun custom-blend beauty site, (, allows the customer to create individualcustom makeup colors, provided you fill out a personality questionnaire -- which asks, among other things, if you were a house, which kind would you be? The options include: "I'd be a maintenance-free house with an exercise room."

At Neiman Marcus (, the gimmick is the interactive Manolo Blahnik shoe boutique where you can click on a slingback stiletto and watch it float dreamily across the page.

Even Lands' End (, the down-home clothing company, recently introduced a 3-D measuring system on its site. Click on a variety of body-type options or sizes, and the image of the woman you say you are appears on the screen. Click on the clothing options provided and you can dress her up like a Barbie doll.

All this can be loads of fun if you own a fast computer with DSL access. Those with ordinary phone-line hookups should be prepared for a possible slow ride through the sites.

That said, it's still exciting to surf fashion Web sites given the incredible range of products for sale. Digging into fashion sites is a great way to get an instant education on designers, products, fabrics and the latest styles.

Most sites have zoom-in or enlarge options, very helpful tools in determining fabrics and detailing. Most sites also do a good job describing items in great detail, and some sites, such as Casual Corner (, allow the consumer to click on a color swatch for a better idea of what the difference is between "cobalt" and "azure."

But unless you fit perfectly into every size 10 skirt ever made, it's going to be tricky to order clothing online from unfamiliar labels. Accessories are a much safer bet. A digital image of a handbag, a watch, a belt, is very close to the real thing.

In hunting down purses, The Chronicle turned up a startling variety of styles on a variety of sites. The major department store sites can have dozens of bags from mostly familiar labels, such as Dooney and Bourke, Furla, Prada , Fendi, Gucci and many others.

The Purple Skirt ( site has lots of bags with a whimsical, kitschy feel, such as the selection of embroidered or beaded bags by less familiar designers Like Lulu Guinness and Isabella Fiore. And also a few high-end leather bags by Jamin Puech of France. While the Purple Skirt site (co-founded by actress Tracey Ullman), is fun to look at and has eclectic choices, selecting a handbag can be time-consuming, since only two items per page are displayed. Surely the Web designers can manage a few more photos per page.

Just about any garment or accessory you can think of is up for grabs, from one-of-a-kind bias-cut skirts for about $150 made of new and vintage fabric at Louise Hedley's site (, to a $1,000 baby llama coat and other handwoven items from Peru, at Peruvian Connection (, to affordable costume jewelry at Joan Rivers' site ( ). Petite? Itsybits ( might be for you. Larger? Silhouettes ( is also ready to serve.

One very useful all-purpose fashion site is Chic Simple (, which among other nifty features such as wardrobe basics and trends, also provides links to dozens of other interesting fashion sites.

Apparel Web sites are plentiful and multiplying every month, but some of the biggest names in the business are still gearing up. Prada? Coming soon. Ditto for Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. Barneys New York (, a sophisticated site with animated graphics and lots of categories, has adopted a wry attitude. Click on women's shoes and read: ''We're reluctant to advertise our shoes; so many of you are addicted." But it also says, "You can't shop from these pages, yet."

But no matter how handsome the site, the biggest hurdle for online apparel sites is the customer's reluctance to play guessing games with sizes and fabric. According to a recent Internet shopping survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers that appeared in Women's Wear Daily, 81 percent of respondents said the biggest problem with shopping online is the inability to try on the merchandise.

A few final words about bargain shopping. Off-price sites, such as Smart Bargains
( ) or Bluefly (, are tempting, but like any outlet store, sizes and styles are very limited. Shopping at Bluefly, a terrific site with lots of designer names, is very hit and miss. A search for a Prada dress turned up just one item, a short, ivory sleeveless crushed velvet dress with jet-black beading, for $500 in sizes 6, 8 and 10. And once it's gone, it's gone.

Dick's tests women's apparel concept: New Ativa offshoot emphasizes upscale athletic lifestyle

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Dick's Sporting Goods opened a new female-oriented retail concept last month, named after its Ativa store brand that could provide a significant source of new growth to a company whose existing operations already possess attractive expansion prospects. The first Ativa store opened last month at the Crossgates Mall in Albany, N.Y., and a second unit is scheduled to open this month at the Walden Galleria Mall in Cheektowaga, N.Y., on the outskirts of Buffalo.

The most intriguing aspect of this new concept is the degree to which it differs from Dick's core focus on freestanding superstores, which generate 60% of sales through hard-lines categories such as golf, fishing and fitness equipment. Ativa, by comparison, is a mall-based concept that measures just 6,000 square feet. The merchandise assortment of apparel and footwear targets women with active and athletic lifestyles, while hard-lines are virtually nonexistent. In fact, Ativa bears virtually no resemblance to Dick's full-line sporting goods stores, and there is nothing in the Ativa store to suggest it is affiliated with Dick's.

Instead, Ativa features a wide entrance from the mall and a predominantly white color scheme with subtle shades of blue and teal used as accent colors. A 4-foot-wide and 10-foot-tall waterfall creates interest at the rear of the store while wooden floors, full-length wooden doors in the fitting rooms, a finished ceiling and recessed lighting create an upscale, feminine environment. There is also a service orientation to the store. The fitting rooms are equipped with call buttons and the footwear department is full service. The store also features a yoga studio with room for 12 people that can double as a community meeting room.

From a merchandise standpoint, Ativa is an apparel store first with at least 90% of the space devoted to women's athletic wear and athletic-inspired casual wear. At least 15% of the space is devoted to the Ativa brand. The broad merchandise mix targets a full range of athletic activities, with looks and at price points ranging from $100 for a sleeveless Nike golf sweater to opening price point Ativa brand merchandise. Leading brands such as Nike, Adidas, Fila, Asics and New Balance are predictably well represented at the store. Those same brands and others such as Merrell are also part of the footwear department, where roughly 70 styles are offered. The very limited selection of hardline merchandise consists of videos, energy bars, fitness magazines and hand weights.

Overall, Dick's appears to have succeeded in creating a store that will interest female mall shoppers and if successful could presumably be expanded quickly given Ativa's small size, reduced staffing requirements, simplified operations and available mall space. Beyond confirming the existence of the initial two units, Dick's has said nothing publicly about its plans for the concept and company officials were not available to speak with DSN Retailing Today.

However, the introduction of Ativa shedes sheds some light on comments Dick's chairman and ceo Ed Stack made in January to a group of financial analysts attending a trade show in Las Vegas. During his presentation, Stack commented that within three years private label would represent 15% of total company sales compared to the current 6%.

"[Private label] is an aspect of our business we are very enthusiastic about," Stack said at the time.

He offered no details of how the dramatic growth in private label would be achieve, but clearly expansion of a store format bearing the name of the company's private label in which 15% of the selling space is devoted to private label would have a big impact.

Before further expansion takes place, Dick's will get a good read on the concept's viability from the two known test locations. The store in Albany is located in a mall that counts as its anchor tenants upscale department stores such as Macy's and Lord & Taylor and footwear stores such as Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, Kids Foot Locker and The Finish Line. Meanwhile, the Walden Gallena near Buffalo contains a Lord & Taylor, Galyan's, Champs, The Finish Line, Foot Action and all three Foot Locker formats.

Even if the Ativa concept is deemed worthy of further expansion, Dick's is under no pressure to immediately do so because its existing full-line stores--the company operates two primary formats, 30,000 square feet and 48,000 square feet-are effectively being expanded in new and existing markets. Dick's ended last year with 141 stores, of which 58 were opened during the past three years. Another 20 stores are scheduled to open this year.

In addition, since disclosing its financial results and completing an initial public offering of its stock last fall, Dick's has emerged as a favorite of financial analysts. The company's sales increased 16% to $395 million and profits increased 48% to $19 million during the fourth quarter ended Feb. 1, 2003, prompting William Blair & Company analyst Bob Simonson to comment, "We believe this is a very impressive performance, especially in light of the difficult overall retailing environment, including the sporting goods sector."