Charming Shoppes Fashions Online Effort

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Charming Shoppes Inc. is running its first online marketing campaign to drive traffic to the Web site of Catherines, a plus-size women's retailer with roots mostly in the South.


The acquisition effort by interactive agency NetPlus Marketing Inc., Conshohocken, PA, is an eight-week test that culminates in mid-November. Direct mail to the same audience of plus-size women who shop online will support.


"Plus-size women make an ideal candidate to shop online," said Robin Baskin, New York-based vice president of Internet marketing at Charming Shoppes Interactive Inc. "It's difficult to exist in our culture today being an overweight woman and not feeling stigmatized when shopping, and so basically Catherines.com is an alternative way for her to shop from home."


Charming Shoppes estimates there are 11 million plus-size women who shop or browse online. Nearly 4 million of that segment actually buy on the Internet. The media plan crafted by NetPlus aims to reach these women for Charming Shoppes' apparel, whose average prices range from $35 to $60.


In the mix are banners of varying sizes and shapes on 10 sites, including Yahoo, About.com, lifetimetv.com, radiancemagazine.com and Big Beautiful Women's bbwmagazine.com.


A traditional banner on bbwmagazine.com reads, "Online shopping just got more comfortable. Fashion in plus sizes 16W-34W. Shop now! Catherines plus sizes." Clicking through takes visitors to a page on catherines.com where they are asked to browse and shop the latest booklet.


Similarly, the retailer has bought keywords like "plus-size clothing" and "plus-size lingerie" on search engines like Google.com as well as on Yahoo. Content placement and newsletter sponsorships on sites for plus-size women and via online vehicle deals with titles like BBW Magazine also will drive traffic.


A more aggressive outreach is the e-mail push Sept. 23 to 25,000 opt-in names of plus-size women. The names were sourced from advertising.com's network of sites.


"I think most marketers have realized how e-mail marketing is so much more cost-effective than direct mail," Baskin said.


However, direct mail still is part of the media used. A postcard mailer went Sept. 4 to 120,000 names rented from 11 lists. Roughly 10,000 mailers went to each list. Consumers were asked to come online and shop. Orders exceeding $50 got free priority shipping.


"The lists' performance is going to be based on the redemption of this offer," Baskin said. "Each list has its own unique code."


Creative for the mailer was handled by advertising agency Carbon 14 in Memphis, TN. Catherines' headquarters is in the same city, overseeing more than 450 stores nationwide.


Revenue for Catherines last year was $382 million, with projections of $350 million for 2002. The shrinkage results from closing the Added Dimension/The Answer chain of stores, whose sales had been included in Catherines' numbers.


Catherines.com acquired e-commerce capability March 18. It has more than 1,000 SKUs, selling tops, bottoms, jackets, lingerie, dresses, eveningwear and outfits.


News of catherines.com's e-commerce functionality was intentionally low-key to ensure the system was stable through site-usability testing. But part of that is also due to public perception of Charming Shoppes.


The $2 billion Charming Shoppes is now the leading specialty retailer of plus-size women's products after the August 2001 acquisition from Limited Brands of Lane Bryant. Revenue this year is predicted to reach $2.46 billion.


"Even though Catherines is throughout the country, the question of whether or not it's considered a national brand at this point, the jury's still out on this one," Baskin said. "It's just been very quietly promoted up until now."


But that is changing. The company has been assiduous in its attempts to recruit plus-size women to participate in a research panel. So far, 9,000 women have signed up at catherines.com to participate in consumer research and focus groups.


For now, the retailer awaits the response to its debut online campaign.


"We pushed really hard to get as much diversity across each site that we've identified and want to test, as much diversity in terms of the types of vehicles for that learning to be gained," said Denise Zimmerman, president of NetPlus. "We're looking for the results, but we're also looking to learn as much as possible."


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