- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

Maybe we like the virtual dressing room. Or maybe we like trying on clothes in the privacy of our own homes, where the lighting is flattering and salespeople aren’t on our heels trying to convince us that a scarf or new shoes “would make the outfit.”

No matter what it is we like about online shopping, the bottom line is we like it, and we particularly like buying apparel and accessories, even expensive ones.

Conventional wisdom had been that consumers buy mostly electronics and entertainment online, but a poll of 603 affluent adults commissioned by Time magazine’s Style & Design supplement found that clothing and accessories are more popular Web purchases, right up there with books. Of those surveyed, 95 percent reported having bought something online in the past year; 68 percent had bought clothes, 68 percent had bought books, and 54 percent had bought music. Fifty percent had purchased electronics; just 25 percent had bought either food or drugstore products online.

Also, though some people surely look for bargains, these particular Time shoppers — with household incomes of $150,000 or more — said they will shell out full price for luxury items, especially if there’s an opportunity to pre-order an item just to be sure they’ll have it before their equally style-conscious pals.

The Web might prove the best chance to get the hot Chloe bag, which you might find already is sold out at Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman after you’ve schlepped over there, says Brendan Hoffman, president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Direct, which oversees the retailer’s Web and catalog businesses.

Time Design & Style hosted a panel discussion about the future of shopping when it released the survey results. Other speakers included designer Vera Wang; Mary Baglivo, chief executive of the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi; Jaye Hersh, owner of the Los Angeles boutique Intuition and shopintuition.com; and Dan Nissanoff, author of “FutureShop,” a book about the effects of online auctions on retail buying habits.

Neiman Marcus Direct fully expected to sell mostly basic items and some accessories online but changed course when it became clear that customers were searching for “fashion” and clicking on luxury brands such as Manolo Blahnik, Mr. Hoffman says. “It’s not what we expected.”

Part of what’s fueling the high-end electronic-commerce fashion frenzy could be the amount of information about designer collections available online. Hours after a runway show, hundreds of images that preview the next season’s styles are on the Internet.

The immediacy helps create buzz, which is good, Miss Wang says, but then comes the realization that the garments aren’t even made yet — this in an era when people are used to immediate gratification from the Web. There’s incredible pressure on the designers and their manufacturers to ship products before public interest moves on to something else, Miss Wang says.

“Fashion is moving at such a fast pace … faster than ever before. There’s a chance of outdating three to five months later,” she says. This is something designers are grappling with at this very moment, she notes.

There’s also a double-edged sword to the publicity that comes with dressing celebrities.

Miss Wang, who did well in this year’s “Oscar sweepstakes” with both Keira Knightley and Michelle Williams in her gowns, says celebrities are “an obvious billboard.” Though most shoppers aren’t in the market for expensive custom-made gowns, those dresses fuel the image of the Vera Wang brand, and Miss Wang hopes that image will influence decisions when it comes to ready-to-wear clothes, dishes, perfume and other wares that carry her name.

“The halo of luxury is that hopefully we’ll sell other things,” she says.

Yet Miss Wang is concerned that celebrities wield too much power over the marketplace, especially because it seems stars are on their way to replacing designers as the arbiters of style.

Panelist Hersh reports that a customer called asking for a paint-splattered sweat suit Jessica Simpson was photographed wearing. When Miss Hersh asked about size, the caller responded, “What size was Jessica Simpson’s?”

Women — the Time survey confirmed that women do the bulk of shopping, both online and in stores — are making celebrity-driven choices after being bombarded with images of Miss Simpson and Lindsay Lohan.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘I can buy a piece of Hollywood wherever I live,’” Miss Hersh says.

Many of the Neiman Marcus Web customers are indeed people who don’t live in areas where the company has stores. Once these shoppers test the online experience and make sure the fit, quality and, perhaps most important, the return policy work for them, they become repeat customers who will drive business in the future.

That’s not to say brick-and-mortar stores are dead.

“Service is a prerequisite for anything relating to luxury,” Miss Wang says, and it doesn’t hurt if retailers also offer food or drink within their walls. “That makes [shopping] sensual and pleasurable.”

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