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Near Christmas, Online E-Tailers Take Marketing Offline

Added: (Thu Dec 02 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By Michelle V. Rafter

LOS ANGELES - It's the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and I'm standing in Union Square in downtown San Francisco, smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest shopping havens in the country. Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Gap, Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, Gumps and Nordstrom are all within easy walking distance.

At midday, sidewalks overflow with people clutching shopping bags and jostling their way into the next open shop door. Sightseers gawk at the human statues spray-painted metallic silver, gold and blue stationed at the corners of the downtown plaza. Or they watch a small band of anti-fur protesters picketing the big department stores.

You'd think this would be the last place you'd see a dot-com retailer. Yet, they're as ubiquitous as the crowds.

A red double-decker bus wrapped in a golden ribbon circles Union Square to advertise an online gift store called Red Envelope (http://www.redenvelope.com). Actors dressed as geeks in white lab coats and thick black glasses hand out CD software for NetZero Inc. (http://www.netzero.com), the free Internet access company.

Nearby, hired hands for DealTime.com (http://www.dealtime.com) pass out flyers announcing a $3,000 shopping spree and other prizes for using the service, which helps shoppers locate hard-to-find items by searching online retailers, auctions and classified ads.

Shrink-wrapped packets of Christmas wrapping paper with little white packages on lime green background advertising GiftSpot (http://www.giftspot.com), another online gift store, are strewn along the sidewalks and streets. Every other shopping bag that passes me sports the logo of this or that brick-and-mortar retailer's online store.

Yes, as the days tick down toward Christmas, online retailers are emerging in the real world in full force to make sure predictions of unprecedented purchases from online shoppers come true. And they're spending a bundle doing it.

With a glut of TV spots for Net companies already cluttering up the airwaves, crafty dot-com marketers are taking it to the streets, literally, in
guerrilla'' ad campaigns.

Red Envelope is a good example. The two-year-old private San Francisco company, which in October changed its name from 911Gifts.com, hired a London double-decker bus to patrol downtown San Francisco over the Thanksgiving weekend, giving people rides from store to store, and in some cases, to their homes. The bus also put in an appearance at the Stanford-Notre Dame football game in Palo Alto, Calif., Saturday night; Red Envelope was a Stanford football sponsor this season.

From mid-October through Christmas, Red Envelope will spend $15 million on its advertising campaign, almost half of $31 million in venture financing the company raised since late summer. On Wednesday and again on Dec. 15, 2 million people living in demographically desirable neighborhoods in seven major cities will wake up to newspapers tucked inside Red Envelope plastic bags carrying coupons good for discounts on the site. The company is also running ads in upscale magazines such as GQ, InStyle and Elle.

What does Red Envelope have to show for it? Business at the gift site is up 300 percent from what it was last year, but officials won't discuss revenue.

"We're very encouraged by the results we're getting so far,"0 said Peter Aronson, Red Envelope marketing director.

NetZero, a year-old publicly traded free Internet provider in Westlake Village, Calif., came up with its
Defenders of the Free World'' campaign, complete with vintage Cold War era photographs of nuclear scientists and other early nerds, in late summer, and first put its lab-coated geeks on the street in October. The company hires stand-up comedians and improvisational actors and trains them to pass out free CDs of the company's start-up software and answer questions.

NetZero sent 100
geeks'' to Comdex, the big annual computer trade show, before letting dozens of them loose in cities such as San Francisco and New York over Thanksgiving weekend. The company is also running a more traditional marketing campaign with ads on network TV sports shows, radio, in magazines, on buses and bus shelters.

NetZero will spend a total of $10 million to $15 million on marketing between August and December, hoping to add to the 2 million registered users it's collected since launching in October 1998. Company spokeswoman Melissa Robinson said it's too early to tell how successful it's been.

Dot-com companies' real-world marketing ventures don't always work, however.

Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), which practically invented Net companies' off-line branding strategies, laid an egg with a Stanford football game promotion of its own.

Before the game, football fans were directed to watch what they thought was live video on the stadium's big screen of a Yahoo parachutist shopping on the Web portal via a laptop computer and wireless Net connection while falling through the sky. Sports fans spent 10 minutes searching for a glimpse of the jumper in the overcast twilight sky before an announcer revealed that due to poor weather conditions the jump had been scrubbed and the video they were watching was from earlier in the week, eliciting groans and boos from the crowd.

(Michelle V. Rafter writes about cyberspace and technology from Los Angeles. Reach her at mvrafter(at)delta.net. Opinions expressed in this column are her own.)

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