Yes, it's decidedly urban and cool. And, sure, its technology is cutting-edge. Yet boo.com may be the Internet's first fashion victim. The much-anticipated electronic retailer finally made its Web debut on Nov. 3. But despite delaying its launch by six months to overcome complex technical problems--and pouring vast amounts of cash into the project--boo was immediately hobbled by glitches and content problems that left many visitors unimpressed and frustrated. Moreover, it was further undone by its own energetic publicity blitz. Massive demand swamped its systems at peak hours, effectively shutting out countless customers. Says Nick Jones, Internet analyst at Jupiter Communications: "They've been hoisted on their own petard."
Among the gremlins bugging the London-based site: exceedingly slow downloads, overlapping texts, freezing screens, and orders that wouldn't process. Moreover, for the time being, boo's system cannot accommodate Macintosh users.
Boo.com's game plan is simple, yet ambitious. Use state-of-the art technology to become the Web's first truly global retailer, and its most fashionable. Its sportswear comes from such top-notch brands as The North Face, Fubu, Cosmic Girls and Puma. It launched in 18 countries in North America and Europe simultaneously, allowing users to shop in six different languages; and it expects to expand into Asia and Latin America next year. Also, it has designed software to let it set prices and taxes for each country--a Net first. And Boo's pedigree and finances are impressive, too. Swedish co-founders Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander created a successful online bookshop in Sweden bokus.com. Deep-pocketed backers--including Goldman Sachs, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and Bain Capital--reportedly lavished $125 million on the enterprise.
Certainly, it's a great-looking site that shows off its fat budget. Shoppers are met by Miss Boo, a virtual sales assistant, site guide and Lara Croft replicant. Clothes can be tried on virtual mannequins. A super-zoom feature lets shoppers eyeball products' details. And goods can be spun around 360 degrees and viewed from all angles. Cool. The trouble is, it's too cool by half. It's so crammed with cyberbells and whistles--functions ostensibly meant to make electronic shopping easier--that they gum up the works and take forever to download. "They've put too much into it and it just takes up too much bandwidth," says Carson Schmidt, of Forrester Research, Amsterdam.
Jones predicts that boo probably has three months to meet the expectations it set before irritated customers go elsewhere. "This is a really crucial time for them, they're going to have to get it right soon," says Mike Godliman, a director at Verdict Research, a London retailing consultant. "Young people aren't loyal or patient with websites." And boo's product line is clearly aimed at the under-30s.
Malmsten, however, calls the hitches minor and vows they'll quickly be fixed. "We're very pleased with the launch. We've seen a lot of traffic and are making sales." Though he won't yet say how many hits the site is getting, he admits that traffic "has overwhelmed" the system at times, though it was built to be "one of the top five" most popular websites.
It's not the first highly publicized launch undone by heavy demand. When American home products maker Amway opened its Quixtar.com website in September it was immediately logjammed by 10 million visitors. And when Encyclopedia Britannica launched its britannia.com site last month, it too was paralyzed by a deluge of customers. Unlike boo, many sites purposely launch themselves quietly onto the Web to avoid intensive media and consumer scrutiny while working through the problems that inevitably dog any start-up. Even successful new sites--like e-bay.com, an American auction center; lastminute.com, a British travel discounter; and the French wine sellers chateauonline.com--have not avoided technical and service mishaps. But those sites can at least compensate customers with bargains. That's not an option for boo.
To keep its high-end suppliers happy, boo offers no discounts. Instead, it hopes to add value with free shipping, free returns, round-the-clock multilingual call centers and lines of clothing not always readily available in Europe. But those attributes may not be enough to overcome its high prices. As Jupiter's research shows, discounts are the main reason people shop online, and cheaper competitors are sure to pop up. But co-founder Leander insists, "It isn't always about price. It will be more about convenience and finding the hard-to-get products."
Perhaps. But there's nothing convenient about a site that can't handle anticipated crowds; nor should "hard-to-get" mean "hard-to-order." In the fickle worlds of fashion and the Internet, boo could quickly become boo-who?