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Surfing up good bargains
by Audrey Phoon

AS at any private designer sale, masses of people are waiting to enter Vente-privee. There's a waiting list for invites and, inside the boutique, a whole array of deeply discounted designer goods.

But it's not a real-world store and there won't be any angry catfights here - just a lot of furious mouse-clicking. Vente-privee, named after the French term for invitation-only clothing sales, is a France-based website that operates precisely on that premise.

Established in 2001, the site's birth marked the beginning of a massively popular new genre of retail websites: online members-only shopping clubs that provide shoppers with free access to deals, previously only available to fashion insiders, on designer goods.

Since then, a multitude of similar offerings has been spawned. There are more than 70 identical businesses in France alone, while Vente-privee has expanded into other parts of Europe.

This category of e-commerce has become especially relevant in the current economic climate, as shoppers are driven to look for better bargains. Last year, Vente-privee (which has won major awards for e-commerce and distance selling) reported its biggest profit ever of £546 million and a 46 per cent growth, and it is targeting sales of £663 million this year.

Meanwhile, other websites such as United States-based RueLaLa have revealed 'continuous growth' and steadily increasing membership.

Local banking executive CR Tan, who found out about and registered with Vente-privee and a 'couple more such sites' in December, says they offer her 'quality at less guilty prices' and 'a more discreet way to shop'.

'And I would generally not find such prices in Singapore,' she adds. Creative professional Kat Seah agrees. 'We all need to tighten our belts a bit right now. Something like this allows me to buy what I'm used to but at more decent prices.'

Fat discounts aside, the appeal of Vente-privee and others like it seems to lie in the exclusivity factor.

All are invitation-only, which means you have to get someone who's already a member to introduce you so that you can access the site and reap the benefits: brand-specific private sales (everything from premium denim labels such as Yanuk and 7 For All Mankind to Nike sportswear and fashion-house offerings from the likes of Dior, Salvatore Ferragamo and Givenchy) that last about two to three days each time and offer anything between 50 to 80 per cent off regular prices.

'The limited-time model allows members to plan their shopping' in that they can 'schedule their appointments so they don't miss out on their favourite boutiques', says Stacey Santo of RueLaLa.

Finance executive D Ong, a RueLaLa member who admits she would otherwise not look twice at 'bargain bin websites' and has 'authenticity issues' with auction sites, admits that the private-sale concept 'makes me feel like shopping at these places is a privilege and they give the goods credibility'.

Other online private-sale options include Gilt Groupe, Ideeli, KupiVIP and Brands4Friends.

Like Vente-privee and RueLaLa, each of these companies offers brand-name goods at heavily discounted prices - something made possible by the fact that many of the sites' founders are people from, or have direct connections to, the fashion and retail industries. (Founders of the two-year-old Gilt Groupe that has offices in the United States and Japan, for instance, are former eBay executive Alexis Maybank and ex-luxury brand manager Alexandra Wilkis Wilson.)

In Singapore, there is, a month-old portal that takes after Vente-privee's concept and is the first of its kind in here. Set up by a group of Singaporeans, the site incorporates top local brands such as alldressedup into its stable of private-sale offerings.

And it ships to Singapore, which is something several of the other portals don't do (although shoppers can use vPost for parcels from the US, Europe and Japan).

'We came up with the idea of Reebonz because we saw the convergence of several trends,' explains Reebonz business explorer Benjamin Han, adding that he has been very 'pleased with our progress'.

Of the site's success, auditor Zhou Kailin, a member who signed up last month, says: 'There's a good variety of products and the discounts offered are good, with most more than 50 per cent.

It's also interesting that the sales only last for two days.' As with many of its counterparts, Reebonz works with past-season inventory, thus refraining from cannibalising the designer brands on offer.

And instead of expending cash on stock and space to store it, the websites operate as middlemen between consumers and suppliers, working to fulfil suppliers' needs to quickly sell excess stock in an environment that does not affect the brands' image. (Such overstock is unavoidable in manufacturing due to everything from production planning mistakes to fashion misses; according to BusinessWeek, this amounts to between 5 and 10 per cent of all merchandise.)

So what's next? Even as the online private-sale concept continues to be discovered by Netizens, many of the sites are morphing to dangle more goodies in front of consumers - and fulfil forecasts that online shopping will grow to a US$235-billion business this year (and US$334 billion by 2012 according to independent market research company Forrester Research).

Vente-privee now publishes its own glossy upscale fashion magazine called Rosebuzz, for example, which is distributed to 50,000 of its top clients. And Reebonz started Honeycombers, a 'free regular e-newsletter and website delivering the latest and the undiscovered in fashion, shopping, travel, nightlife, beauty, well-being and home', this week.

While it's unclear just how far the Internet private-sale realm will extend to, what's certain is that 'private sales have innovated online shopping', says RueLaLa's Ms Santo. She concludes: 'Our goal is to continually innovate with new developments that will make the shopping experience fun and fulfilling for members.'

This article was first published in The Business Times .

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