Virginia Barnett heads straight to Neiman Marcus whenever the urge arises to buy a $500 Ferragamo bag for herself or a $2,500 Prada suit for her boyfriend.
But instead of driving to the store near her home in Fort Worth, Texas, Barnett logs on to the Internet, checks out the Web site www.neimanmarcus.com and e-mails her online personal shopper David Isaacs to make her purchase. Barnett, 26, said she doesn't miss the perks that usually draw a customer to Neiman Marcus -- an attentive sales assistant stroking her ego and tending to her every shopping need.
What the Web site offers, Barnett said, is infinitely more important: convenience.
"I can e-mail [Isaacs] from home at 2 a.m. that I saw something on the Web site and I'm interested in finding out more about it," said Barnett, a corporate head-hunter. "I don't have time to hunt things down on my own. David knows what I need, he knows what I want and he knows I'll spend the money."
In fact, Barnett likes the online shopping arrangement so much, she hasn't set foot in a Neiman Marcus store in more than five months. Luxury shopping the way Barnett does it is the latest trend in high-end retailing right now, as retailers like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue expand their empires onto the Internet.
While lower-end retailers like JC Penney, Sears and J. Crew have been selling on Web sites for several years, luxury stores have chosen to wait to make sure that they can replicate their renowned customer service online. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus launched their Web sites within the last year; Saks followed suit last month.
So now customers seeking that $12,000 Carolina Herrera fur tuxedo jacket or that $2,155 Dolce & Gabbana fox-trim plaid coat can buy it without stepping out of the home or office.
"Our customers are increasingly shopping online, and it's important for us to be there," said Nordstrom.com spokeswoman Shasha Richardson. "It's not that they're choosing to shop online over doing it in the stores. They're doing both, and we're offering more choices for the customer to interact with us."
Industry experts say that high-end retailers chose not to leap onto the Internet when others were in 1997 and 1998 because they wanted to be careful. With the troubles of high-profile sites like Boo.com -- an ambitious British venture to sell designer apparel online internationally that went through more than $100 million before shutting down in May -- established luxury retailers wanted to ensure success before launching Web operations. Lord & Taylor still is studying e-commerce and has no immediate plans to start selling online.
"The high-end companies smartly decided to sit this out and let other people make mistakes," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology at the Washington-based National Retail Federation. "But they also knew that by and large their best customers were probably not on the Web at that moment anyway. Their best customers, a lot of them are successful older women. In '97 and '98, most of us who were on the Web were either on the Web at work or were very young."
But today, the online population has begun to span all ages. Hotka added that many customers don't mind making large purchases on the Internet, especially if it's with retailers like Saks or Neiman Marcus, who are known for high-quality customer service.
Kenny Kurtzman, CEO of Ashford.com, which sells designer watches, jewelry and accessories online, said those online today are open to buying luxury goods, so retailers should provide them online options. In a survey of 4,000 Internet users that the Houston-based company commissioned in May, 50 percent of the respondents had bought luxury goods online or in stores in the last two years. Many of those surveyed reported spending $250 or more online for a single item within the past year. Ashford.com, launched in 1989, had sales of $40 million last year.
Kurtzman added that not only have Americans become more Web-savvy and accustomed to making purchases online, their attitudes toward buying luxury items have changed as well.
"In the past, luxury goods were really more of a status symbol, like, 'I'm buying a Rolex because my neighbor has a Rolex, and this is an indication that I've made it,' " Kurtzman said. "Now, the mentality is very much different. We're seeing that people want to give luxury goods to themselves or their friends as a reward or recognition of hard work, like, 'I really worked hard on this project, and I really deserve to give myself a watch.' "
And sometimes, those who want to buy themselves luxury items would prefer to shop without dealing with salespeople. For example, the founder of Ashford.com came up with the site's concept when sales assistants at a high-end retailer wouldn't serve him when he wore jeans and a T-shirt to the store looking for a Cartier watch. Virginia Barnett said she's had similar experiences at Neiman Marcus because she looks so young sales people think she doesn't have the money to shop there.
"I love Neiman's, but when I step into a store sometimes [sales clerks] don't treat you with respect, they just look at you funny," Barnett said. "I went to a store in Denver once to pick up two suits that were $5,000, and no one's even talking to me."
Ginger Reeder, spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus Direct -- the retailer's catalog and e-commerce division -- said the company is hoping its Web site will attract a younger demographic like Barnett.
"It appeals to a younger customer who may be intimidated by that whole walking-in experience," Reeder said. "The people who feel, 'Oh gosh, I don't want to have to go talk to a salesperson.' "
As for the customers who do enjoy the attention of salespeople, these luxury sites have tried to ensure that their top-notch customer service translates online, too. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Ashford.com and Nordstrom all have personal shoppers whom customers can reach by phone or e-mail.
Most of all, these retailers said they are hoping to reach customers who may not have a store near them.
"There are just 61 Saks anywhere in the world," said Bill Haslam, president of Saks Direct. "So, for a lot of people, it's a question of geographic access. People who love to shop with Saks, love the brands that we carry but don't have access to them. Now they do."
The customer service test
e sent an e-mail to online personal shoppers at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom seeking help finding a scarf to match a dress with an unusual fabric. Here's what we found:
* A Saks personal shopper replied within two hours, offering detailed directions on the Web site to a beautiful $410 silk organza stole by Adrienne Landau.
* A Neiman Marcus representative sent an e-mail within two hours asking for more specifics and was never heard from again.
* Nordstrom.com did not respond.
Where to pamper yourself on-line:
This site's home-page is nice to look at, but it isn't easy to navigate if you want to browse the collection of a specific designer. You have to conduct a search to find a designer's items online, as opposed to having a page with designer boutiques for you to click into and explore. However, do check out the Manolo Blahnik shoe boutique, which features a section using innovative video game technology to provide a tour of shoes displayed in a mansion.
Customer-service perk: If you e-mail the service seeking accessory options, for example, a personal shopper sometimes goes into the store, takes pictures of items you might like and e-mails them to you.
Popular items: Cosmetics, cologne, apparel by designers Ellen Tracy, Kay Unger and St. John.
For a new Web site, Saksfifthavenue.com is well designed to make shopping online almost effortless. This site's designer boutiques allow you to splurge on ritzy designers like Badgley Mischka, Dolce & Gabbana and Carolina Herrera. If you want to take a closer look at items, just click on your mouse and zoom in.
Customer-service perk: Swift personal-shopper service. If you can't wait for a personal shopper to e-mail you back, the site offers great suggestions for shoes and accessories to go with any outfit you're thinking of buying.
Popular items: Women's shoes, designer apparel.
You can shop Ellen Tracy, BCBG Max Azria and Kenneth Cole on Nordstrom's site, which is easy to navigate. Also, with this site, you won't have to trek to a nearby Nordstrom to salivate over the store's famously wide selection of shoes. Check out the "World's Biggest Shoe Store" on the site, which has an inventory of about 30 million pairs of shoes.
Customer-service perk: The site soon will have live online chats about fashion trends and styles with customer-service representatives.
Popular items: $900 diamond navel rings and a $40 version in cubic zirconia; bags, earrings.
Here's where you can get a 14-karat gold Movado watch for $1,883, diamond bracelets ranging from $1,300 to $12,500, and pricey Burberry ties. This Web site offers 14,000 styles of expensive watches, sunglasses, jewelry and fragrances. You can even design your own engagement ring. The best part is, customers outside Texas don't pay sales tax, which on a $30,000 diamond-encrusted watch is a hefty sum.
Customer-service perk: If you order before 6 p.m. EST, next-day delivery is guaranteed. And not only is delivery free, your items arrive in a chic, red, faux-suede package with a silver bow that will make you the envy of your co-workers.
Popular items: Oakley sunglasses, especially the $275 X-Metal Romeo model Tom Cruise wore in "Mission: Impossible II," and watches.
This dull-looking Web site offers information on Lord & Taylor and where you can find stores, but all you can buy here is gift cards. What's the fun in that?
Customer-service perk: None
Very chic-looking Web site that can be difficult to navigate if you're serious about shopping and not just browsing. Blurbs enticing you to buy Armani Exchange items sometimes pop up and interrupt you when all you're seeking is specific information on a particular item.
Customer-service perk: Armani Exchange has made this Web site accessible through cell phones or Palm Pilots, so shopping while waiting in traffic or on the light rail is an option. If you're in Manhattan, same-day delivery is available.
Popular items: Armani Exchange logo T-shirts for men and women, men's sweaters and women's tops.