December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Beauty Jungle charts a course ranging from exotic world brands to the corner drugstore

Come with me to the place “Where Beauty Lives,” the tagline of Actually my quest was far simpler: I went in search of Fig Leaf, a signature scent by Demeter. Armed with my machete-an AOL browser and 56k modem-I headed for the great cyber interior.

I typed in the site’s URL. And waited. After a toe-tapping 45 seconds, a coppery face with an alarming magenta blaze on one cheek began emerging. Call it serendipity, but even before the page had finished loading I spotted a row of Demeter bottles nestled next to the woman bathed in copper and magenta-ready for the taking.

After clicking on the Demeter gift set, I waited another 30 seconds and was faced with a choice: Would I like to see the whole Demeter line? Yes! Then another choice: face and body or fragrance? Finally, in a list of Demeter fragrances, I spotted the elusive Fig Leaf. I clicked on the “info/buy” button, but before I could place my order I had to complete the registration form. Curious about the privacy policy, I made my way to the “Our lips are sealed” heading only to learn that Beautyjungle apparently plans to share any intimate info I may provide on my adult-onset acne with only its most “trusted partners.” I also learned that if I disable cookies to avoid being tracked, I could take my business elsewhere.

Time to order my Fig Leaf. At $12.50, the price is right. Shipping is free-unless you need overnight delivery, which I did. The extra $10.95 highlights the downside to sites that sell small-ticket items: Shipping can cost almost as much as the product.

As I attempted to complete my transaction, my safari came to an abrupt halt with a blaring error message. A call to the easily in-view toll-free number summoned a helpful customer service representative who speculated that I must have back-clicked (I am not saying yes, I am not saying no). All was well, she assured me, as an e-mail simultaneously confirmed.

With that resolved, I took a self-guided tour of the site. Under the magazine section, I learned that if I suffer from “post-Millennium madness” (isn’t that five minutes ago?), I may need hair thinning shampoo. In the advice section, I learned the best way to use a hair-dryer is to alternate hot and cold. Good to know, though I don’t own a hair-dryer.

At that, I’m willing to wager, I differ from most visitors to Beautyjungle. The average shopper is female, age 25 to 35, who travels often and enjoys an “intimate relationship with beauty products,” according to Glen Nelson, vice president of marketing communication. I fit the profile only partially. While female, I am slightly outside the target group, and have never met a blusher I felt “that way” about. But I’ll take Nelson’s word for it.

Launched in November 1999, Beautyjungle has entered a thicket of nearly 300 beauty sites selling similar goods. The name, according to Nelson, derives from the “wild selection” and the site’s bright colors. Business was huge during the holidays, he volunteers, adding that sales remained strong during the slow brick-and-mortar months of January and February.

In an attempt to attract buyers of the “Big Three”-Estee Lauder, Lancome and Clinique, which account for 70% of the prestige cosmetics market-Beautyjungle has organized its store in microsites. Each “beauty boutique” offers groupings of products similar in personality and appeal. Within them are “beauty rooms,” where vendors control the spin. “The Internet offers tremendous branding opport-unities, but the worst thing that can happen to a heavily branded product is to get into a catalog with a lot of competing brands,” says Nelson. “Each of our sites retains the emotional imaging of the products.”

Despite that, the Big Three have opted out. “None of the beauty sites have attracted them,” says Michael May, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, New York. “Sites like Beautyjungle are attractive to smaller and mid-size suppliers that can capitalize on the online merchandising expertise.”

By setting up boutiques and using clever headings such as “Beawwwty,” Beautyjungle helps smaller manufacturers package products and content. “The smaller brands can partner with everyone and anyone and capitalize on the offline advertising done by the sites,” says May. “It’s cheaper than counter space at Macy’s.”

Beautyjungle also features bigger brands, providing a something-for-everyone atmosphere. The site carries department store standbys Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Arden, plus lesser-known brands such as Dirty Girl and Femme Arsenal. For naturalists, it sells Beauty without Cruelty and other products made without animal testing. Finally, there’s the drugstore gang: Cover Girl, Almay and Max Factor.

As for its policy on collecting personal data, Nelson says it’s used to customize customers’ product preferences and shopping experiences. Beautyjungle has no incentive to misuse shopping data and every reason not to, May insists: “The suppliers see these venues as extensions of their brands.” This is where beauty differs from other product lines, such as computers. The latter, May explains, use a network of distributors, which function like one-stop shops for Web site developers seeking to acquire products to represent. “With beauty, though, the developers have to establish a relationship with each manufacturer individually,” May says. “That’s why the handling of the product on the site is so vital.”

The upside of such sites for manufacturers is access to customers, which sounds simple but is actually very significant. “Many beauty manufacturers advertise nationwide,” says May, “but have surprisingly few outlets.”

Which seems especially important for an unusual brand like Fig Leaf. Two days after I placed my order, Federal Express appeared on my dusty desert street. Nestled in the purple packing was my bottle of Fig Leaf. And some free samples. Yet I had to wonder how closely Beautyjungle was paying attention: The samples I received were all for men.

Jean Lawrence is a freelance journalist based in Chandler, Ariz.

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