Art.com Plans Direct Mail Campaign to Move Eyes to Revamped Site

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Competition in the burgeoning online market for prints, photos and other decorative images is likely to accelerate this year as Art.com Inc. tries to jockey its way into the No. 1 spot with a broad promotional push and remodeled online store.


Art.com, Lake Forest, IL, will carpet-bomb more than 1 million households with a direct mail campaign designed to steer eyeballs to its virtual store this fall, and the company will launch its redesigned site this week. Art.com also plans to expand its Web-based advertising in April to include American Online Inc.'s main portal.


"We're spending a lot of money on marketing," said Art.com vice president of marketing Michael Kahn. "There have been a number of companies that have entered the art arena … and we want to get way out in front of everyone else."


Customer orders at www.art.com are surging 20 percent to 30 percent weekly, said Kahn, and average ticket size is consistently higher than it was over the holidays. Shoppers at the store can browse through more than 100,000 pictures and then choose from a variety of mat and frame combinations they can view with their art.


As visual items, prints and posters have less online marketing hurdles than other products: What you see is what you get, unlike clothes, books and compact discs. Additionally, the art market has no traditionally dominant players.


As with most of the cyber-retailing world, merchants peddling artwork through the Net hit their stride in the recent holiday season. Executives at Art.com manned the manufacturing floor and the company added second and third shifts to keep up with swelling demand late last year.


The company's sales boomed almost 100 percent October through December 1998, an increase the company attributes not only to the holiday season but to its abandonment in November of the somewhat unwieldy URL www.artuframe.com. Weekly transactions increased to more than 500 in the same period, up from 300, and the average order for both framed and unframed art climbed to $65 from $47.


But the better news for the future of Web art retailing is that revenue continues to climb, said spokesman Bruce Rosenberg of Barewalls.com LLC, one of Art.com's more formidable competitors.


"We were worried that [the holidays] would be so strong that January would be quiet, but January got even stronger and then February got stronger," Rosenberg said. The oldest player in the online art sales arena, Barewalls opened its virtual doors late in the summer of 1997, when the closest Internet competition was a handful of private shops selling frames.


And Barewalls, Cambridge, MA, is confident in its own strategy. The company offers limited frame options, but delivers prints and paintings an average of three to seven days after receiving orders -- compared with an average delivery time of two weeks at Art.com. Over the holidays, Barewalls increased its staff and promised delivery in time for Christmas on orders placed as late as Dec. 21.


"If you're not delivering conveniently and on time, then why is the person buying from you?" said Rosenberg, adding that Barewalls has carried out extensive consumer research domestically and overseas.


Barewalls began advertising on Yahoo Inc.'s portal two years ago, and the firm operates its own affiliate program. The company's sales currently are doubling every two and a half months -- a growth rate that would make most traditional art dealers salivate. Still, it's not quite the surge seen by Art.com.


Determining which art retailer is getting the biggest piece of the picture pie is difficult. Both Art.com and Barewalls are privately held. But if wholesalers' opinions indicate anything, Barewalls is still getting the lion's share, said Barewalls spokesman Bill Colon.


"We've been told by our suppliers that we're the leading retailer. That's hearsay, but from their point of view, that's quantity," he said.


Whether Barewalls is the sales leader or not, Art.com is determined to take command of the market. The company will test its mail campaign this spring, targeting new home owners and other people who have recently relocated. Art.com hired more than one agency to work on the campaign, Kahn said.


The redesigned store will include a personal gallery that lets customer use a private ID and put aside pictures they're considering in case they want to consult with a spouse or rethink their decorating options. The store will have new search and log-in capabilities as well. Art.com hopes to launch an auction section of the site in midsummer.


Like Barewalls, Art.com places banner ads and other click-through buttons on Yahoo. It began advertising on portals Excite Inc. and AltaVista Feb. 1.

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