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November 16, 2000|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN,

Forget buying clothes on the Web by using virtual models, measurement guides and describe-your-body questionnaires--most don't work and many customers don't know how to work them.

To buy clothes online, you need to be either: a) a sample-size model, the "perfect size" people on whom designers base their measurements; or b) the already satisfied owner of the same or similar item. Put another way, you are most likely to buy clothes on the Web from real-world companies that you already know and trust.

There's a reason there wasn't any democratization in this arena, where an early adopter swept in to dominate the online clothing market the way did with online books.

Bypass the hip-sounding apparel "dot-coms" with their virtual models, three-dimensional views and a whole host of neat features. Their longevity is unproven.

Best site to shop--and buy: In shopping for clothes, shopping, browsing and buying online might as well happen in the same place. No point in comparison shopping on many items because much of it is exclusive to a store or about the same price. Because familiarity is a key to online apparel shopping, the choice here is ( (Lands' End also is a good site, as people trust the quality and often use it as a place to restock their basics:

Convenience: Recently redesigned, offers clear navigation, and easy checkouts only add to the reasons for shopping there. Its pages are quick and well-labeled.

Customer service: The company famous for greeting customers who walk into stores doesn't want to leave Web shoppers in the lurch, so offers phone help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Shipping and return policy: Choice of U.S. Postal Service or Federal Express. On a $125 order, shipping would run about $9. Returns can be made by mail or in any Gap store; shipping cost paid by customer unless item was incorrect or defective.

How it compares with offline: Biggest downside is that you can't try the clothes on before buying.

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