Boo, You're Gone!

SAN FRANCISCO (05/21/2000) - Boo who? After just six months in operation, Boo.com's board of directors closed up shop last week, placing the online fashion retailer into receivership. Having burned through an estimated $120 million, the company fell into the hands of liquidators and U.K. courts. The rapid demise of the high-profile retailer sent shock waves through the e-commerce world, as Boo's fall was seen as a potential harbinger of a broader shakeout in Europe. Indeed, Boo isn't the only scary sign out there.

A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that a majority of U.K.

Internet companies could "run out of cash within 15 months." Even worse, a quarter of them are predicted to dry up within six months, the report stated.

The downdraft left European e-commerce executives insisting that Boo's woes were entirely its own. "It's a Boo situation," says Dinesh Dhamija, CEO of Ebookers.com, a London-based online travel service. "They were young people who got into the business with a great plan who couldn't deliver."

A year ago, the plan did seem great: With consumer e-commerce just coming into vogue, Boo promised it all. Free shipping and free returns; a site in seven languages and 18 countries; a shopping experience that would let you zoom onto a product, turn it around and see what it looked like on a virtual mannequin; and chic styles that would make shoppers part of the global fashion elite. But after months of glowing press worldwide, Boo's management, led by CEO Ernst Malmsten and former model Kajsa Leander, received criticism for burning through tens of millions of dollars on publicity before the site even launched.

By the time the site finally appeared in November, debuting in 18 countries, it was almost six months late - and the holiday shopping season was already crowded with competition. To make things worse, the company's expensive, cutting edge technology was riddled with numerous technical glitches that kept many would-be shoppers off the site. Those who could get on the site reported that it was more about titillation than function - despite flashy features like 3-D product views and an interactive shopping assistant known as Miss Boo, the site would freeze and crash and was difficult to navigate. Perhaps its biggest bug: Some shoppers couldn't complete their purchases. It was an expensive hole that the company could not crawl out of.

The rocky start forced the company to shelve several ventures, including an interactive lifestyle magazine that reflected Boo's uninhibited and extravagant ambitions, with bureaus in London, New York, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Paris.

Then, with sales falling short of expectations, the company fired employees in New York and London in February. With cash growing tight, the company's backers - including French luxury-goods magnate Bernard Arnault, Goldman Sachs, J.P.

Morgan and an investment arm of the Benetton Group - pressured the firm to increase sales before ponying up additional funding. Searching for last-minute strategies, Boo tried to capitalize on its biggest asset, its ability to deliver products to several European countries within five days, by handling shipments for other companies. The company also was looking for ways to leverage its technology. Neither plan took hold, and soon the company found itself bereft of options.

At a London press conference last Thursday, it was announced that the retailer had relinquished control to KPMG liquidators. The courts would determine which of Boo's creditors would get paid. It's a process that could take a week to several months, a KPMG spokesman said. In New York, Boo employees said they were not surprised by the news though there was concern about whether any employees would receive a severance package. "The company is being very generous," said one New York employee. "They're letting us use the faxes, phones and computers for the next week to conduct our job search."

SIDEBAR: Boo.com: Scared to Death

Boo.com had all the hallmarks for success: a snazzy e-commerce strategy, the support of LVMH and other luxury fashion companies, a reported $120 million in funding, and a staff of ingenues. But then came reality: After lengthy launch delays, major technology glitches and a bleeding bottom line, it's almost as if the company was doomed before it began. Here's a look at the company that was Boo.

Fall 1998 - Winter 1999

The idea of Boo.com is hatched, backed by French fashion conglomerate LVMH and other firms. Betting that there's a global market for a hip sportswear retailer online, the company plans a reported $25 million marketing effort timed for its intended June launch.

Summer 1999

Several anticipated start dates come and go, with Boo.com yet to emerge online.

The ads, however, start appearing in magazines worldwide.

November 1999

Almost six months after its intended launch, Boo.com makes a fashionably late appearance in 18 countries and six in languages. But - yikes! - only Web surfers with a 56Kbps modem or better could see it without waiting several minutes for it to load.

January 2000

In the first admission of trouble ahead, Boo lays off about 25 percent of staff, mostly from editorial and customer relations.

February 2000

Cofounder and finance director Patrik Hedelin leaves the company.

April 2000

Dean Hawkins (formerly of Adidas) leaves only three months after replacing Hedelin as finance director.

May 5, 2000

Boo.com's CEO Ernst Malmsten admits that the money's been spent but claims the company has lined up an additional $30 million from investors.

May 17, 2000

With hopes for financing dead, Boo.com goes under, taking its 300 employees with it. KPMG is asked to liquidate the company.

(Bevin Cummings)

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