Virtual Showrooms Look to Lure Buyers

NEW YORK — A crop of new Websites are betting that buyers want more-convenient, low-cost ways to do business.

Retailcommon.com and StylePowerhouse.com offer virtual showrooms, where buyers can scout out product, as well as build connections. Both are hoping the popularity of social networking sites can lure buyers with the promise of Facebook-like networks. Vendors, too, are getting in on the action with more wholesale sites for viewing lines and even placing orders.

“We aren’t trying to replace Facebook; we are integrating with Facebook,” said Tom Cassidy, founder and CEO of Retailcommon.com, which launched in Canada in July and the U.S. last month. “It’s a tool to enhance the existing industry on all tiers — everywhere from the brand, through the distribution chain to the end consumer.”

Cassidy, a former retailer from London, Ontario, conceived the site to give buyers an online way to source, place orders and book meetings. When a retailer registers for the site, they will list the brands they carry. “Then, on behalf of that retailer, we go to those brands and tell them they can open an online showroom [for a fee], so the retailer can view images and wholesale pricing and streamline their buys,” said Cassidy.

The site already has signed brands such as New Balance Canada and PF Flyers Canada, and more than 100 retailers have joined.

Next spring, Cassidy said he hopes to launch an e-commerce platform that would connect consumers to retailers.

StylePowerhouse.com, launched earlier this year, is also continuing to roll out improvements, such as the ability to upload video and audio.

“The idea and vision for the Website is to have a portal to connect buyers, designers, media, fashion students and everybody in the fashion industry,” said Rida Kahn, founder and president of StylePowerhouse.com. “The fashion industry is very good, but it’s not as technologically advanced as some other industries. We need something like this now more than ever.”

Kahn, who has been a private-label buyer, owned a showroom and worked at trade shows, said the economy spurred the idea, as more people are looking for alternatives to expensive trade shows. But she also aims to help new designers — especially those in footwear.

“It would be a great way to show shoes because they are always one thing that people do not have a problem buying online,” Kahn said. “And if you are a new designer, it’s so hard to connect or find a showroom.”

Currently, registration on the site is free. In the future, though, Kahn said it would switch to subscription for a nominal fee. She also plans to unveil a system similar to Pay Pal, through which buyers could do their purchasing. Such an addition is at least a year away, Kahn said, but it could minimize fraud and ensure secure transactions.

Vendors such as Harbor Footwear Group have also recently launched showroom-like sites for wholesaling. Barry Specht, director of marketing for Harbor, said the site works for both his company and retailers.

“We’ve found there are actually fewer mistakes when retailers do their own orders,” he said. “And you’d be surprised how many people are placing their orders in the middle of the night.”

As for whether showing and buying online could really catch on, retailers said they are open to the idea.

Diane Adams, owner of Spicy Boutique in Plymouth, Mass., and Littleton, N.H., said that as a result of the economy, she is interested in alternative ways to look at shoe lines. However, she added, guarantees on the product would be vital. “I buy online from vendors I use all the time because I know the quality,” said Adams. “Somebody I didn’t know, I’d probably want to see their products first.”

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