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E-commerce heads for hills

Mountain Zone is betting that combining content with direct sales can help it reach profitability for its outdoors Web site.

A Web site designed for low-tech mountain sports enthusiasts is betting that one of high tech's hottest trends--blending content with direct sales--can help it reach profitability. But the little-known site may face an uphill climb toward that goal.

Mountain Zone's integration of online gear sales and travel bookings with live event coverage and other content aims to tap a well-defined community of skiers and snowboarders, climbers, and mountain bikers.

About 100,000 members have signed up with the site, according to Seattle's privately owned Zone Network. With the help of a recent content-sharing agreement with sports leader, the 3-year-old site turns an average of 2,000,000 pages per month.

The aggressive marketing approach has succeeded in generating 45 percent of Mountain Zone's revenue--and with the important holiday retail season at hand, the site is poised to expand its e-commerce services, executive vice president Greg Prosl said. This fall and winter, Mountain Zone aims to double the number of stock items it offers to around 10,000.

"It's our intention to be the outdoor gear superstore in this space," Prosl said. That's a bold statement because, as he points out, there really aren't any middlemen in the outdoor gear industry.

Usually, manufacturers sell directly to retailers--unlike the computer industry, which relies heavily on a network of resellers that provide sales and service. "A lot of people won't sell to someone who's only online," Prosl acknowledged.

Mountain Zone's offerings now pale in comparison to giant REI Co-op, another Seattle-based company that's moved into the online space in both gear sales and travel. A healthy proportion of Mountain Zone's offerings are books, and the site also lacks the cachet of a such long-standing players as Patagonia, another e-commerce competitor.

But Prosl is buoyed by a recent agreement with North Face. "It's a sea change for us," he said of the deal with the industry leader, which lacks its own Net presence.

Mountain Zone also has just completed an agreement with respected manufacturer Helly Hansen, according to a company spokesperson. Gregory and Mountain Hardware are two of the bigger names already on board.

Also on the way: free email, a "frequent visitors" program that assigns points toward purchases and promotes giveaways, and an expanded inventory of vacation home and condominium rentals. Mountain Zone partners with WorldRes for resort, hotel, and bed & breakfast accommodations. Mountain Zone also aims to ramp up its advertising and expand its cybercasting.

The site prides itself on its live-event coverage, including audio programming of World Cup skiing, snowboarding, and climbing expeditions, and sees this niche as the pathway to a closer relationship with "They cover a lot on TV that we do on the Web," says Prosl, adding Mountain Zone is hoping to extend its relationship to television cross-branding.

But that ambition may be undermined by rival Outside Online, the longtime ESPN affiliate that was the first to sign on with Starwave. Starwave and ESPN Internet Ventures are now both components of Buena Vista Internet Ventures, Disney's online arm.

Of the two, Mountain Zone is clearly more aggressive about e-commerce, but the electronic version of giant Outside Magazine retains a huge advantage in brand recognition and can repurpose print content.

Mountain Zone focuses more on competitive events, which would seem to dovetail more closely with ESPN's television purview, but Outside Online's environmental politics reportage is all but unmatched.

Distribution will be key to Mountain Zone's efforts, according to Patrick Keane, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications. "It's crucial to get distribution on mainstream media outlets," he said.

"ESPN fits into that. It's going to get you a whole lot eyeballs, and get you in front of the right audiences. It's going to be far easier than trying to build a brand than if you try to do it through guerrilla advertising."