December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Modeled after its successful catalog, fits an online niche

There’s an old adage that says to be successful, you need to do one thing and do it well. That could be the motto of J.Crew. While its offerings aren’t for everyone, the New York City-based clothier has perfected the distinctive preppy-yet-hip apparel to appeal to its young, upscale consumers. And with, it has created a Web site that makes online shopping as easy as ordering from a catalog.

The company has captured a large segment of the high school, collegiate and young professional market with its classic fashions, sold mostly through catalogs but in 69 retail stores as well (with plans to open 13 more by year’s end). In 1996, J.Crew embarked on a new path and began selling its clothes and accessories online.

Like Ralph Lauren for a younger set, J.Crew doesn’t just sell clothes-it sells a lifestyle. Every pair of suede lug slides (that’s Crewspeak for sandals) or cargo khakis sold carries with it the implicit message that life can be like a J.Crew catalog, with you and your friends cavorting photogenically on a beach, wearing clothes in colors such as lawn and thistle and pond. And indeed, J.Crew’s signature images of people riding bikes, hiking through the woods or just enjoying a cup of coffee in a fabulous loft can seem annoyingly perfect-like scenes from a summer camp for models.

Fitting pretty

“J.Crew presents a lifestyle many people aspire to,” admits Brian Sugar, the company’s director of new media. “The images, the photo-graphs in the catalogs and online-customers want to be doing what these people are doing.” Even so, its catalogs have spawned parodies-most notably Justin Racz’s Jcrewd: A Parody (Main Street Books, 1998), which includes among its offerings genetically cloned toddlers, or J.Clones, in models called the Ashley and the Ashley Deluxe. Sugar finds the parodies funny-and a testament to J.Crew’s widespread popularity.

Which brings us to Like its clothes, the Web site is clean and devoid of frills. The home page opens to a typical J.Crew image and offers links to two categories-men’s and women’s clothing. This is Internet shopping at its easiest; in basically one click, you can get to the type of clothing you’re looking for, whether it’s pants, sweaters, swim-wear or accessories. “We wanted to make the site very fast, very easy and very J.Crew,” Sugar says.

And it is. The Web site is essentially the catalog put online, offering color photographs of each item and easy pull-down menus to select color and size. Most items include fabric swatches and descriptions of the fit, so you know whether the T-shirt you’re ordering is “relaxed” or “lean.”

According to Sugar, J.Crew conducted extensive customer surveys and structured its offerings according to their needs. The homework shows, with products leading logically from one to another, although you can jump to any category by clicking on its name. Both the men’s and women’s clothing sections begin with suits and move easily to sweaters, shirts and more casual wear.

The primary obstacle to selling clothes online-that customers can’t try them on-doesn’t concern J.Crew. The company’s roots, after all, are in cataloging, so it didn’t go out of its way to create something like the virtual dressing rooms found on some other clothing sites. “Virtual dressing rooms crash computers and they don’t look like the customer,” adds Sugar. “They are more of a novelty than anything else right now.”

A few imperfections obviously believes in making online shopping as stream-lined and easy as possible. The site moves along briskly with no messy links where customers can get lost. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some imperfections. My biggest frustration was that some items were out of stock. When I ordered another item that was in stock, an order confirmation was e-mailed to me-but no shipping date. I had to call the J.Crew order line to find out when to expect it. While all contact information can be found under the Help button, it couldn’t hurt to put it on the ordering pages as well.

Those minor glitches aside, is easy and browsable. Although J.Crew is no Kmart, that doesn’t mean you can’t find bargains in the Weekly Sale (which is updated each Friday at noon) and Clearance areas. I found a boiled lambswool crew sweater marked down from
$40 to $24.99, and a handknit men’s snowflake sweater reduced from $79 to $39.99.

The checkout was as smooth and easy as relaxed linen pants. Before your order is sent, the product, size, color and price, as well as shipping and billing addresses, come up in large, easy-to-read-and-edit print. Shipping charges are average for catalog clothing-$4.95 for orders of $25 or less, $6.95 for orders of $25-50, and so on. Not too bad, but it does start to add up especially with J.Crew’s pricier items. My tank top arrived in a timely manner, wrapped in a plastic bag inside a paper one emblazoned with the unmistakable J.Crew logo.

Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, a Chicago-based e-commerce consultant, regards as one of the best
e-commerce sites. “They have done
a nice job combining visuals and practicality,” Freedman says. “The site makes browsing functional, which is not always easy to do.” She particu-larly likes the sales areas because they encourage impulse shopping-good for J.Crew, bad for me.

Despite’s success, the cataloger isn’t resting on its laurels.
It is currently working with Sun Microsystems to create a whole new Web site with more personalized shopping features, such as one-click ordering and recommendations based on order history. The revamped site should be up by early fall-just in time for holiday shopping.

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