December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Discount designer clothes draw online bargain hunters to

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But Seiff insists that Bluefly is taking all the steps needed to distance itself from the competition by adding more senior technology managers and updating its Web site with advanced personalization programs. In fact, Seiff believes Bluefly’s My Catalog feature, a sophisticated search engine, will set his site apart from other online apparel stores. By filling out a detailed questionnaire, Bluefly customers can create a personalized catalog of only the selections they are interested in shopping for and in the sizes that will fit.

Seiff says My Catalog pays off handsomely every time a customer returns to browse the site. Only items that fit a customer’s specifications will be shown, avoiding the frustration of shopping for coveted merchandise that isn’t available in the colors or sizes they want. The feature is also a good way of tracking who’s seriously shopping the site. So far, about 37,000 shoppers have signed up.

My Catalog is the cornerstone of Seiff’s plans to turn browsers into buyers. Additional components include a 90-day money-back guarantee and a one-price ship-ping policy of $3.95.

Creativity is in abundance at Bluefly-from the contest it ran on Valentine’s Day to find the best online pick-up lines that worked (“Do you .com here often?” was the winner), to the light, fun content of its “flypaper.” The “fashion911” feature focuses on helpful suggestions on subjects like dressing for a job interview. A tongue-in-cheek list even offers the top 10 reasons to shop (No. 3: “With prices like these, even Monica can afford a new dress”).

The need for speed

Bluefly acquires its merchandise from retailers, wholesalers and consolidators who are looking to move their products, often at the end of a season. Recognizing the need for speed, it has an exclusive contract with a Massachusetts fulfillment business to ship orders within 24 hours. “We have a fundamentally different approach than traditional retail thinking,” Seiff claims.

The kind of flash decision-making that is key to being successful in the Internet marketplace is rare in the traditional world of retail clothing sales, according to Seiff. He should know, having spent seven years building Pivot Rules, which manufactures a collection of golf lifestyle sportswear for men, into a $10 million business. It was when Seiff and his team began looking into the possibility of going online with the golf clothing business that they identified the much larger, untapped market of designer apparel at a discount.

Bluefly is easier, Seiff says, in that he doesn’t have to deal with retailers in the middle, and can sell directly to consumers. “In the golf business we were running at 50% to 100% growth a year,” he adds, but “I don’t think even combat would have prepared me for this.”

One major advantage to running an Internet business is the instantaneous customer feedback-made possible through My Catalog and e-mail on the site. “The over-riding factor that drives businesses on the Internet is having a customer-centric business based on what our consumer wants,” says Seiff. “Any information we have about our customer can help us take our business to the next level.”

Rubin agrees. “Bluefly has found a way to access clearance inventory of a large number of manufacturers and brands and deliver it to customers in a user-friendly interface,” she says.

A higher profile

But Seiff acknowledges that if Bluefly is going to build up its brand even more and eventually be recognized as a household name with Web shoppers, the company must adopt a higher marketing profile. To accomplish that, Bluefly has launched an ad campaign with the tagline, “ the outlet store in your home,” and is placing the ad in about 20 consumer and business publications, including Vogue, GQ and Forbes. By advertising in such magazines, Seiff hopes to convert more shoppers to the Internet. “Quick acquisition of customers is critical in this space,” Seiff says. “We can convert store shoppers if we hook them on a higher level of service.”

This summer, Seiff promises that customers and online retailers will see a redesigned Web store. The company is working to reduce the time it takes to load the site, update the graphics and make it easy to click directly on the merchandise. “In this space you can’t take too long to implement a decision,” he says, “and Bluefly is making the right decisions to move forward.”

Michele Molnar is a business writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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