On the Avenue

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - "Black isn't always black." So says Lezlie Winter, explaining why she shuns the Internet when it comes to shopping. She was browsing through the handbag section of Saks Fifth Avenue. "And gray isn't always gray, and red isn't always red." Whatever important things the Internet might do for the world and the economy, when it comes to picking a purse, it apparently doesn't measure up.

Winter's observation may not come as great comfort to Saks Inc. executives, who last week launched the store's Web site, hoping both to serve current customers and to lure new ones. A random sampling of 13 shoppers at the company's New York City flagship turned up only three who say they will shop online - and one says she will buy only accessories. That doesn't mean that the people we talked to don't buy into the online shopping hype: Everyone else must be shopping online, several imagine, just not them.

"I think it's a wonderful thing if one is the proper size," says Elisabeth Goldenberg, who asked that her age be noted as, simply, "senior." Though she called her figure "not bad, especially after what I went through in life in Europe," she notes it is not such that she can forgo trying on things.

Nonetheless, she predicts that Saks' Web sales will take off. "For anyone who's not a senior citizen, who's slim, it's fantastic. ... An older person - returning stuff is not so easy."

Young or old, no one seems to have outgrown the childlike impulse to touch everything in sight. (No customer mentioned putting prospective purchases in their mouth, but the Internet would foreclose that option, too.) For most, the idea of buying something without touching it first is unpalatable, even unthinkable. "How do you buy this?" asks Larry Winter, who accompanied his wife Lezlie to the handbag department and is holding up a camel-colored felt bag.

"The only thing that makes sense on the Internet as far as I'm concerned is if you're buying perfume. Perfume's perfume. It's no big deal."

More than one woman voiced the common concern that her figure is not, well, mannequinlike. "I've got a weird body," says Lisa D'Angelo, 28. She would love to have a purse or bracelet delivered to her, she adds, but any clothes would have to be tried on.

Convenience is the hook for two women who say they will buy clothes online. One lives in Providence, R.I., and the nearest Saks is an hour away. The other seems in a slightly bad mood. "I really don't like it," she says of in-store shopping, looking around her. "Too many people. Long lines. You're helping yourself anyway."

But several others said that shopping online is not much of a convenience if you need to make a return. And men - nonbrowsers that they may be - didn't buy into the convenience angle, either. "I would go to their Web site, but the problem with that is it's very limited," says Dennis Trites, 50, who was fashionably dressed in a khaki Calvin Klein suit. He calls the Net "a very limited venue for apparel. I don't see it ever becoming important or replacing brick-and-mortar in the retail environment."

That would seem obvious to the two white-haired shoppers who strolled arm in arm through the women's department and politely stopped to chat. When asked what they thought of Saks starting to sell online, they looked puzzled and hurried off as one explained, "Oh no, we don't have a computer."

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