Upscale merchants stroll online

The Fifth Avenue crowd that once dismissed the Web, asserting that their customers didn't shop there, are quietly hiring firms to help set up their online shops.

3 min read
Stores for wealthier shoppers are slowly building a Fifth Avenue on the Web, showing the signs of savvy Internet strategies.

Indeed, the high-end crowd that once dismissed the Web, arguing that their customers didn't shop there, are quietly hiring firms to help set up their shops. Many even have plans to make the Web another distribution channel for their pricey hats and ashtrays.

As Nordstrom revs up its already impressive Web effort with yesterday's announcement of an Internet spin-off, could Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor's e-commerce plunge be far off?

After all, high-brow auction houses Sotheby's and Butterfield & Butterfield are online. And Williams-Sonoma is expected to have a Web site selling upscale home goods by the fall.

New generation of shoppers online
The most ritzy of retailers should be worried about expanding their brands online and cultivating a new customer base, said Yankee Group e-commerce analyst Melissa Bane.

"Their shoppers are not going to be around forever," she said. "Today, they have to be targeting the next wave of shoppers," who are moving online quickly.

"It's their game to lose," she said.

But maybe some retailers don't consider the Net to be that strategic yet.

Tom Tashjian, a financial analyst at Banc of America Securities, said Nordstrom and other offline department stores consider the Internet to be just another sales channel. Although Nordstrom and Macy's have set up e-commerce sites, many department stores have limped to the Web, asserting that their customer is not shopping there.

"The department store customer isn't a big Internet user," Tashjian said. "They're not very Internet savvy."

Web sites trickle online
Moving at a turtle's pace is jewelry retailer Tiffany. Though the Tiffany Web site is up, complete with advice on choosing an engagement ring, it's not yet selling its pricey Paloma Picasso aquamarine rings, signature china, or lead bowls online. A spokeswoman at Audrey Hepburn's revered shopping spot said Tifanny plans to start selling on the site within the next year.

Meanwhile, 90-year-old retailer Neiman Marcus recently partnered with database company Informix and will start selling from its apparel catalog online this fall. The new e-commerce site promises personalized service and support.

And for the choosier art collector, upscale Guild.com has debuted on the scene, selling more than 4,000 pieces of art by 621 artists. The site lists artwork, crafts, and jewelry ranging in price from $35 to $10,000. With roots as a company that published resource books for design professionals for 15 years, Guild plans an advertising campaign this fall intended to target beyond the collector to "professionals with style," and disposable income, a spokeswoman said.

While some upscale manufacturers such as Liz Claiborne are already online, others including Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, and Perry Ellis have little more than placeholder sites tagged with "coming soon" signs. Still those companies appear to be further along with their Internet efforts than manufacturers such as Polo Ralph Lauren, which has no Web presence at all.

Representatives of Liz Claiborne, Tommy Hilfiger, and Polo Ralph Lauren were not immediately available for comment.