There's a change in store for holiday shoppers this season. Over the past year, many of the world's biggest luxury brands, from Marni to Michael Kors, that were previously hard to find on the Web, have opened online stores.
The decision to sell directly to consumers online is a first for these brands, many of which have long shunned the practice as a mass-market affair. That's forced shoppers to seek out the hottest handbags and apparel elsewhere, often from a small group of luxury e-commerce sites like Net-A-Porter.com or Neimanmarcus.com, that have exclusive agreements with the labels. Some are treading carefully into these new waters -- shipping only to Europe, for example, or carrying a limited selection -- and few plan to offer any special deals for the holidays.
But for U.S. shoppers, the new sites nevertheless give more choice than ever before -- and more of a chance to compare prices. Within the last several months, Bottega Veneta, Dior and DKNY have all launched new online stores. Italian fashion brand Gucci, which is owned by France's PPR, has redesigned its site in time for the holidays, while Vuitton and Dior have both launched their first direct-to-consumer sites, though neither ship to the U.S.
The Internet's reputation as a host for discount shopping and bargain-basement deals, epitomized by retailers like eBay and Amazon, has until now been a turn off for luxury-goods players. Brands have largely focused instead on developing their roadside store networks, where they say they can better control their image.
But the absence of real luxury players online created a void that counterfeiters have filled. Experts say that by opening a certified store online, fashion houses can help combat that troubling phenomenon. For instance, Hermes's site warns consumers that other sites might be passing off fake or damaged goods.
There are other advantages to shopping these sites. Three Bottega Veneta items, including a gold woven-leather wallet for $460 and a $160 candle in a woven-leather holder, are initially for sale only on its Web site for the holidays. Coach, which is known for its "accessible luxury" handbags, is advertising a flat shipping rate of $8.50.
Because some sites are actually run by third parties, they have a wider reach. Marni tapped yoox.com to run its online boutique earlier this year, immediately gaining access to the Web retailer's expertise, such as shipping to 25 countries.
Keeping consistent prices around the world is a priority for luxury-goods brands, which use their directly-controlled global store networks to ensure uniformity despite currency fluctuations.
But the Internet offers transparency if price differences emerge. A Michael Kors black leather double-breasted jacket sells for $2,495 on the brand's recently-inaugurated Web site, for example. The same jacket can be had for $1,247.50 through Net-A-Porter, thanks to a fall promotion. A Gucci white satchel bag on Gucci.com sells for for $1,355, or for $1,295 on Bergdorfgoodman.com.
Consumers shouldn't expect any special Christmas coddling, either. High-end fashion houses tend to see the year-end shopping craze as a mass-market affair followed by half-off sales on Dec. 26. Moreover, people tend to buy $1,000 handbags for themselves, rather than as gifts.
The pioneers in luxury e-shopping say they see the arrival of these sites as an opportunity. Net-A-Porter, one of the earliest luxury sites, often carries a bigger selection of the brands it distributes such as Bottega Veneta and trendy British label Mulberry, since many of the new independent sites don't carry shoes or apparel.
Several fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, haven't yet rolled out U.S. sites, opting to start their e-commerce experience in Europe. This means a shopper buying a Vuitton handbag on the brand's French site needs to pay with a French credit card and have the bag shipped only to a French address.
U.S. shoppers are redirected to another site owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, eluxury.com, which offers a more limited selection of Vuitton products.