February 14, 2002, 12:00 AM

LaneBryant.com: A hot retail site without e-commerce

It registers more than 700,000 unique visits per month and its customers generate 1,600 virtual models a day, but LaneBryant.com sells no merchandise on-line.

It registers more than 700,000 unique visits per month and is one of the spunkiest fashion sites on the web, but LaneBryant.com sells no merchandise on-line. That is by design, declared Jennifer Peterson, director of brand development for the 650-store chain that specializes in plus-size apparel for larger women.

Nonetheless, Peterson this week told an audience at the eTail 2002 Conference in San Jose that LaneBryant.com has been perhaps the key tool in the complete repositioning of the century-old chain. Launched in 1997, LaneBryant.com has played a pivotal role in remaking the image of the chain from what Peterson called “a dowdy brand for grandma” into what she claimed is now a store for the “smart, sexy and confident woman.”

Rather than focus on e-commerce, however, Peterson declared that LaneBryant.com has built its success by communicating the chain’s new positioning message to a rapidly growing group of loyal fans who are drawn to the site to see the chain’s latest outfits, view sexy and high-tech fashion shows as they happen, try out the site’s novel 3-D virtual modeling technology and participate in its popular chat rooms. Indeed, LaneBryant.com has become one of retailing’s best case studies for using the web to build brand loyalty to the store without selling merchandise itself. Along the way, the site has become a PR machine for the chain.

Peterson listed a number of techniques that the site has used to achieve its dedicated following. Monthly contests reward winners with apparel featured on the site, such as a corset used in a recent Lane Bryant fashion show. The site also hosts live webcasts of runway shows featuring plus-sized actresses and professional wrestlers modeling lingerie and other revealing apparel. One such webcast held earlier this month featured a fashion show conducted during a live performance of the rock band KISS. The webcast drew an audience of 65,000, and the wide press and television coverage of the event generated 200 million media impressions, according to Peterson.

Last fall, LaneBryant.com became the first site to feature second-generation technology from My Virtual Model, which is based on a 3-D imaging system. Called 3Dme@LB, the new technology helps web shoppers “try on” hundreds of garments in a matter of minutes and to find those with the perfect fit. In using the system’s custom-fitting technique, shoppers provide all body measurements and other features, including hair and eye color, in order to create a virtual model in the shopper’s likeness. That 3-D model is then used to help shoppers select “best fit options.” On an average day, said Peterson, about 1,600 virtual 3-D models are created at the site. “It’s increased quality traffic at our stores, because it makes the customer vested in the idea of visiting the store to buy the outfit she’s tried on at the site,” Peterson claimed.

Another traffic builder is the site’s so-called Chick Chat room, which Peterson defined as “an uncensored way for plus-sized women to talk with others like themselves in the comfort of a secure web forum.”

Thanks in part to the popularity of such web-based, brand-building techniques, LaneBryant has built a database of a million customers, all of whom now receive a steady stream of HTML e-mail promotions for the chain’s fashions. Those promotions, reported Peterson, achieve a 33% open rate and a 25% click-through rate.

Despite this success in using the web to generate brand loyalty and boost store sales, LaneBryant’s former parent resisted pleas to convert the site to a full e-commerce operation, although it did allow for the addition of electronic gift certificates. But that could well change in the aftermath of last October’s acquisition of the chain by Charming Shoppes Inc. “The Limited didn’t want to fund an e-commerce operation at LaneBrant.com, but the new owner does,” explained Peterson. “We have wanted to do it for years and our customers have been dying for e-commerce.”

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