December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Sue Levin`s startup gives the long-ignored women`s sportswear market a www.workout

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In other ways-such as its eclectic staff-Lucy mirrors other Internet startups. The site’s “About Lucy” section describes the 50-person staff as: “a finalist to play Snow White at Disneyland (she declined the opportunity); a cheerleader dubbed her high school’s “most athletic;” six moms (and one mom-to-be); a self-admitted exercise junkie keeping alive a four-year, 10-month (and counting!) exercise streak; a former male field hockey player; a published novelist; a former roadie for ZZ Top; two bike-trip leaders who’ve easily logged a combined 15,000 miles in the saddle; and an intrepid romantic who spent her honeymoon in Irian Jaya where she and her hubby nearly got stuck in a native insurrection!”

What draws the Lucy staff together is their passion for sports. Along with Levin’s ultimate Frisbee background and Delhagen’s experience as a triathlete and marathon winner, co-founder Hochman’s wife was a member of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team. “We understand our customer.” Levin says, “Many of us are her, or we’ve spent long careers learning about her.”

The shipping side

To put that knowledge to work in a reliable Web store operation, Lucy has contracted with Norm Thompson Outfitters, a distribution and fulfillment company, to ship orders from a warehouse in West Virginia. Delhagen says 90% of orders ship in 24 hours. To score more customer service points-and reassure shoppers leery of getting stuck with ill-fitting gear-the site offers free exchanges and returns. Each purchase, for example, is shipped with a postage-paid return label.

Lucy’s product specialists focus on offering customers even more reassurance about ordering online. A customer with a question about running tights or a sports bra can click on a tab below the image and fill out a query for the staff. Delhagen says the staff tries to reply in a few hours. Customers who don’t want to wait can call a toll-free number listed on merchandise pages-even though the number is nearly obscured in small type .

As they enter their second year at Lucy, Levin, Delhagen and their colleagues are challenged to make shopping the site easier, expand product lines with reliable supplier agreements, consistently ship orders on time, and generally make a good name for the company. A recently inked deal with America Online will list Lucy on AOL’s shopping channel, helping build more visibility and traffic. And executives are mulling sponsorships of major women’s athletic events. Even more significantly, the company plans to enter the world of print by publishing a catalog this year. “Our customers tend to be young and busy,” says Delhagen, “and they want multiple channels.”

Improvements via a second-generation design are already under way, a pattern that’s become common with recently launched sites. Levin and Delhagen will only say that the new version, set to debut in late spring or early summer, will make the site faster.

Another e-commerce ritual that Lucy has conquered is financial backing. In January, Levin and Hochman secured $28 million in third-round financing from Oak Investment Partners and Maveron, with founding investors Sutter Hill Ventures and Foundation Capital kicking in, too. To Levin, the funding makes the process of establishing Lucy as a brand possible. “We’ve chosen our products meticulously, built a phenomenal team and created a cool storefront,” she says. “We now have everything we need to meet the huge customer demand for these products.”

Market moxie

John Lovett, sporting goods analyst at Gomez Advisors, Lincoln, Mass., agrees that the demand is out there for Lucy. What will bring customers back, he says, are the site’s community-building “Style in Motion” and Live and Learn” content sections. Lovett sees the appeal stretching across a diverse crowd that includes teens as well as 30-somethings. Lovett calls women’s sportswear “an important market that Lucy has staked an early claim on.”

That diversity means Lucy must cater carefully to its audience, says Levin, with content suited to various ages, interests and needs-hence articles dealing with both finding the right sports bra and buying a post-mastectomy bra. And a piece about how to dry out ski boots alongside another article addressing how women over 50 can get fit.

In fact, Lucy.com is based on an understanding that the marketing model used for most sports doesn’t apply well to women. Women shop differently than men and respond to different marketing techniques. “What works on men-like sports hero endorsements-doesn’t work on women,” Levin says. “Not enough retailers know the needs of women and address them in a quality way.”

Sue Levin

- Experience

March 1999-present: Cofounder and CEO of Lucy.com.

1998: Finalist for Sporting Goods Business magazine’s Woman of the Year award.

1999-1997: U.S. women’s brand director, Nike Inc.

1994-1996: Founded and directed the Women’s Sports Marketing Department, Nike Inc.

1991-1998: Editor-in-chief, City Sports magazine.

1987: Associate Editor, Women’s Sports & Fitness magazine.

1986: Contributed to the startup of Walking magazine.

- Education B.A. in history, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.

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