The shift comes at a good time, analysts said, and not just because the holiday shopping season is approaching. Women are spending more online now than at any time since the advent of e-commerce, and, travel and cosmetics top their shopping lists.
"Beauty is about to explode online," said Donna L. Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California, Riverside. "It's been quietly generating momentum for a year or two, but now the big sites are taking advantage of many new features to really sell some stuff."
Chief among them, Hoffman said, was Lancome from L'Oreal, which recently overhauled its Web site. Online sales for the company, which also sells cosmetics through retailers like Bloomingdale's, have grown steadily over the last few years; Lancome-usa.com is now considered the company's top-selling store in the country.
But according to Sarah Williams, who heads Lancome's e-commerce team, those sales came despite many flaws on the Web site. "A lot of people, when they were on the site, didn't even realize this was a shopping site," Williams said.
The company revamped and reintroduced the site this summer. Williams said it takes advantage of technology that allows shoppers to get more information on an item without having to click to another page.
Shoppers who wish to learn more about a certain type of lipstick, for instance, can click on one of the many Quick Shop icons on the site. From there, a small window appears with a description and an offer to add the product to the shopping cart or wish list. Visitors can receive beauty tutorials and other information without being redirected away from the original product.
This approach, pioneered by Gap two years ago, "means you just don't use the back buttons anymore," Williams said. "The concept of going back, online, is over."
She said one of the most successful innovations of the Web site is a remake of the Discontinued Items section, which now suggests replacements for the many products that are shelved during a given year. "One of the biggest customer complaints across the industry is that we're all constantly discontinuing items," she said. "Now, customers know when something's gone, and they can get recommended replacements."
The number of Web site visitors who make a purchase rose 20 percent right after the new site was introduced, Williams said, and the number of shoppers who abandoned their carts dropped to 30 percent from 50 percent.
Now, Bloomingdale's, a division of Macy's, has chosen this line of products to help lead it back into the e-commerce market. In August, Bloomingdales.com introduced a cosmetics section that represents the first full product line sold on its site since the company abandoned online selling in early 2002.
At that time, Bloomingdale's attributed the move to lackluster appetite among customers for the company's limited online product assortment. Now, the retailer has technology and warehouse systems in place to offer a wider assortment of items in major categories, according to Francine Klein, executive vice president at Bloomingdale's.
"We recognized the Internet is something that's an important option for the customer, and we were not availing ourselves of that," Klein said of the strategy shift.
Seventy percent of the cosmetics products available in Bloomingdale's stores are now for sale on the Web site, Klein said, and the rest will be added by the end of January. "A big percentage of this business is replenishment," she said of the cosmetics category. "And this is a very convenient way to do that."
In rejoining the online beauty competition, Bloomingdale's has had good timing in at least one respect. Gloss.com, the online partnership between the cosmetics brands Estee Lauder, Chanel and Clarins, shut down this summer, a move the company's executives partly attributed to the fact that consumers prefer to shop on brand-specific Web sites.
Statistics from ComScore Networks, an online consultancy, seem to bear that out. Of the five most popular sites for fragrances and cosmetics, only Sephora.com, a unit of LVMH, sells multiple brands. (Avon leads all other sites by a wide margin, while Sephora is second.)
Hoffman, of the Sloan Center, said the multibrand retailing approach of Sephora is still viable, because in contrast to Gloss.com, Sephora has invested heavily in its own brand. "Sephora really paved the way in this category, and showed other retailers this could work online," she said.
Sales in the beauty category rose 22 percent last year, according to Forrester Research, an online consulting firm, slightly less than the overall e-commerce increase of 25 percent. Forrester recently predicted that the category's sales would jump 25 percent this year, compared with 18 percent for the online retail industry over all.
Allison Slater, Sephora's vice president for marketing, said the company revamped its Web site late last year. It has recently added features allowing customers to quickly find new products, like a $250 hair removal device called the NoNo that Sephora is selling exclusively.
This summer, Sephora introduced a loyalty program, which rewards online and offline shoppers for repeat purchases. Slater said the company would take what it learned from those purchases and offer more personalized services and product recommendations by e-mail. "It's all about getting more personalized," she said. "Once we know a client's preferences, we can speak to them more effectively about what they want."