Next month, French cosmetics giant Sephora will launch an online store, featuring 14,000 different kinds of lipstick, eyeliner, blush and perfume -- a selection that dwarfs what's available at any cosmetics counter, in any store, anywhere.
Sephora, a division of the luxury retailer LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton that racked up some $250m (£152.4m) in sales last year, won't be alone in making the online push. It will be joined by a host of other sites trying to pitch cosmetics.
With names such as eve.com, gloss.com, and beauty.com, one thing's clear: These firms aren't going after hard-core techies. Instead, they're focusing on what promises to be the hot new market for e-commerce this autumn -- women. "We know there will be a market," said Sephora.com CEO Jim Kenney, from the company's American headquarters in San Francisco.
That's a pretty safe bet. Others are predicting there's going to be a market, too -- a big market. A recent survey by Harris Interactive, for example, predicted that half of all online shoppers this holiday season will be women.
If women start shopping the Web in those kinds of numbers, it will mark another landmark step of e-commerce's inexorable and escalating shift into everyday life. Those demographics would bring the online world closer into alignment with offline sales, where women are key decision makers in several categories.
It's no surprise, then, that some of the categories expected to be hot this year -- health and beauty supplies, apparel and groceries -- are categories in which women traditionally dominate purchasing decisions, said Mike May, analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. "The initial categories that saw success -- computer hardware and software -- catered to the demographics online at that time," May said. "As the Internet become more mainstream, merchants will need to target women to succeed." For example, women accounted for more than 77 percent of all offline apparel purchases in 1998, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm.
Online, the Harris survey found that the percent of buyers expecting to buy apparel online tripled between 1998 and 1999. Four or five times as many shoppers indicated their intention to buy health and beauty supplies and household items.
The toy market, another category traditionally dominated by female shoppers, is another prime example. It exploded last year, with major promotions for online retailers. The Harris survey predicts it will surpass PCs in the percent of online buyers making purchases this Christmas. "(Women) have been kind of window shopping, figuring out what sites work," said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation. "You're going to see jumps in categories like apparel and cosmetics. Women are going to go to the areas they're most comfortable with and names they're comfortable with."
Mullin said that the influx of female shoppers won't just affect what's being sold online. It will affect how things are sold. "One of the things we haven't seen anybody do very successfully on the Internet is attract the customer with impulse buying. Most (shoppers) know what they want, they go to the site, buy the product and get off the site. What retailers need to do is attract them to other products that may or may not be related," she said. "In a lot of the Web sites there isn't the kind of excitement you would expect to see."
Sephora's Kenney said that one way to keep women interested is to broaden sites beyond simply shopping. In his category, for instance, it's especially important to be able to give consumers a sense of the product. "You can sell a PC without seeing it, or a book, but it's hard to be able to see the colour of a lipstick, or smell the top notes of a fragrance (over the Internet)," he said.
Take me to the e-commerce special.