Lost in Cyberspace
Cosmetics Online
© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz

Going to cosmetic counters and applying colors and scents is to a certain retro femdom what going to a sports bar and watching football is to a lot of men. Americans -- mostly women -- spend nearly $12 billion a year on cosmetics. No wonder the health and beauty industry is the latest dotcom gold rush in cyberspace, where a gaggle of mauve and puce Web sites have sprouted up to sell high-end makeup, fragrances, hair spray, nail polish and other personal care products.

That many working women are too busy to go to the mall is the theory behind Eve.com. "No lines. Free parking. Beauty at 3 a.m.," assert Eve.com twentysomething founders and former New York investment bankers Mariam Naficy and Varsha Rao on their Web site. "We designed Eve.com with ourselves and our friends in mind, to answer the needs of women who want the most innovative beauty products in the world -- on their schedule."

Eve.com has received $30 million in financing from such venture capitalists as Menlo Ventures and Pasadena-based Idealab, whose other Internet investments include eToys, GoTo.com and Free-PC. The San Francisco-based company carries more than 100 brands of high-end cosmetics easily searchable by brand or category. It also has an online magazine and beauty hotline and is a featured premier retailer of cosmetics on the popular Yahoo! search engine.

Ladies from the boonies know about premier cosmetics through fashion magazines, but sometimes can't get more than Revlon at their local K-Mart unless they go online. That's the concept behind another online cosmetics startup, Gloss.com, also founded by two thirtysomething women, Sarah Kugelman and Deanna Kangas, who first met while working for Bath and Body Works in Columbus, Ohio. To help establish its glam credentials, Gloss.com formed a partnership with Women In Film Los Angeles, the foremost nonprofit organization for women in the entertainment industry, and is sponsoring several WIF events, including the Crystal and Lucy awards for women in film and television. With offices in San Francisco and New York, Gloss.com has received more than $20 million in funding from such heavy hitters as Intel, MediaOne Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners and Matrix Partners.

One unique feature at Gloss.com is a "virtual makeover," which lets you "try on" beauty products by choosing among five pictures of models with different features and skin color, then selecting colors that are digitally applied to the eyes, cheeks or lips of the models. By spring, online users are to be able to see the colors applied to uploaded digitized images of themselves. They'll also be able see how different hairstyles and colors look on themselves before they go to a hair salon.

A merger of two earlier Internet companies, Fragrancecounter.com and Cosmeticcounter.com, ibeauty.com is more understated, like Martha Stewart, who happens to be on its board of directors. Ibeauty.com carries a more commercial line of cosmetics, but what it lacks in glitz it makes up for in five simple words: "free shipping and gift wrapping." One more thing it has going for it is that it is on America Online's Shop@AOL network.

Another major contender for top online makeup maven is Sephora.com, the cyber version of the French retail chain owned by cosmetic giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey. Sephora.com carries more brands than most Web sites, plus its own private label collection of cosmetics and accessories.

One startup unlikely to survive the looming shakeout is Reflect.com, which supposedly lets you create your own cosmetics, but is possibly the most convoluted Web site I've ever seen. Before you can buy anything at Reflect.com you are first confronted by an elegant flash animated audiovisual show that takes about as long to load and play as a stoplight. Next you have to register, choose a screen name and password and submit to a survey with such questions as what kind of house or bird you'd like to be. Then comes another animation of your virtual "personal Concierge Representative," who explains how to navigate the site.

After another 11-question survey regarding skin tone, hair color, etc., the site picks your "personal cosmetics line," and then asks you to "continue customization" by clicking on one of the products. When I chose lipstick, up popped yet more questions regarding lipstick preferences. At this point the Java windows began acting up, so after all that I was still unable to buy anything.

Yet another problem with the site is that it doesn't give a clue who is responsible for this abomination. Click on "Not just an image, the reality of what we are," and you get a phone number and an e-mail address plus the message "Reflect.com is owned by Reflect.com LLC, a privately held beauty company based in Menlo Park, California." Period. I called a service number and was able to determine that Reflect.com is not owned by Procter & Gamble, the same folks who make Pringles potato chips and Tide laundry detergent. But P&G is the primary investor in the company, which was started by some former P&G employees.

copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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