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Prom time players

Prom time playersMelissa Bright and Staci Hemingway, like many of their Taylorsville High School colleagues, had a great time at their prom March 12.

But when it came to planning and buying for The Big Date, neither of the seniors realized they had hundreds of options only a keyboard away. Dozens of prom-related Web sites pepper the Internet, offering styles and advice for the tux-and-gown crowd.

"I didn't know there were any," Bright said. "I probably would have looked at them. It would've given me different ideas on what to wear and things like that."

"I definitely would have looked to find hairstyles," Hemingway said. "I usually look in regular teen magazines for hairstyles, and the dresses in the magazines are expensive half the time. For my dress, I usually shop at a department store at the mall."

For folks with prom still on their calendars, there's still time to buy a dress, glean ideas for hairstyles or pore over tips for making the night the memorable evening everyone hopes it will be. Some prom sites have items for sale, others provide tons of information and some do a little bit of both.

"I can honestly say as a person who owns a stand-alone store also, the selection available at a one-stop shop online is hard to compare with what's at a brick-and-mortar store," said Debra Dixon, owner and president of Two Girls and a Dress LLC near Cleveland, which operates www.offtoprom.com.

The site offers items for sale, including 100 gown designs, plus checklists and health and beauty tips.

"I represent 10 vendors, the top ones in the industry. All the top styles are online," Dixon said. "We run the gamut from little girls zero to 2 and women to size 30. The scope of what we're able to offer is greater. That creates lots of options for these girls, as opposed to traveling around to a half-dozen little stores to see what they have and going back to the first to buy the best one and the dress is gone and the vendor doesn't have time to get that piece in time for the dance."

"It's a little bit of a tough purchase," said David Wilkenfeld, owner of www.promgirl.com, a New York company that offers dresses, accessories and information through a setup of vendor catalogs of merchandise.

"The dress has to fit right in a lot of places. It's not like a blouse or pair of pants. With the fabric, it's sometimes hard to get a feeling of the detail online, but what we do find is there are a lot of customers in remote areas, and they just have one or two small stores, and they don't want to have the same dress as someone else in their town, so the Internet is a good option for them to find something unique."

New York-based The Knot Inc. publishes a wedding magazine but also has launched www.promspot.com. Its "dress finder" has more than 300 designs, but rather than sell dresses, the site refers shoppers to either the designers' Web sites or stores.

"We're in the business of getting people the information they need to make their purchases and feel comfortable about it," said Amy Shey Jacobs, public relations manager. "But we also want to be a resource when they need other types of information."

While most sites have similar types of offerings -- dresses, shoes, accessories, tips and even contests -- the scope varies quite a bit. PromGirl offers a guidebook, including coupons, with purchases.

Many prom sites offer information for free, but some have memberships -- for free or a small fee -- to gain access to even more prom-oriented details. Offtoprom's membership includes special promotions and a twice-a-week e-mail newsletter.

"We're pretty established," Wilkenfeld said, noting his site has been operating since 1999. "We're in the process of upgrading where you can become a member and have access to a lot of things. We'll be more of a prom portal, not just selling merchandise."

Offtoprom is "for girls who, but for a site like ours, don't have access or availability to pieces like they've seen in all the magazines," said Dixon, whose Web site launched in December as a spin- off from a brick-and-mortar store. "There are more young women than not who don't have great resources for special-occasion dressing, but their locale shouldn't dictate what's available to them.

"We have enormous stock. We have dresses that are the dress. They need to have the dress and will kill for the dress. I have the dress."

When developing the site, Dixon said, she wanted it to be information-driven and not just about sales. Despite it being on the Internet, she wanted it to have a "boutique" feel, including personalized, one-on-one customer service.

To help get that feel, Dixon started a "Dear Deb" column on the site as a way to answer visitors' questions.

"The visitors believe they know me. People who have a Web store that sells products as important as a prom dress and feel it's going to be strictly an arm's-length transaction are foolish."

PromSpot, launched in February 2003 but expanded this year, has dresses, style tips, dating tips, and stories and pictures from previous prom-goers. One is tuxedo tips for the guys. Another is for parents, featuring chaperone ideas and budgeting advice. Step-by- step instructions for hairstyles and makeup also are available, as are "prom problem-solvers" (Zipper broke? Zit trouble?). Accessories, by the way, include a mini baseball bat (insert your own date joke here).

The site's "dress finder" feature allows a person to search by designer, price and color from among more than 300 designs. They'll then be told where to find exactly what they're looking for.

"We do have an area to shop for supplies, but we just provide information online about dresses," Jacobs said. "We really want them to go into the store and try them on."

"A lot of of people are concerned about ordering online," Dixon said. "The majority of sites out there have final sales on these dresses."

But hers has manufacturer specification size charts and, if that fails, a return policy.

And, Dixon said, the online environment actually has an advantage over physical stores. Boys have accessed the site to surprise their dates with the gift of a particular dress seen in magazines. "We help them figure that out, and it's not as intimidating as going into a store. The Web is kind of anonymous."

PromSpot's message boards also help guys who "won't go to CVS and buy a prom magazine," Jacobs said.

Those message boards -- for members only, although membership is free -- have proven popular with girls and guys, with 15,000 posts daily, she said. "They love talking to each other and getting information from each other. They're talking not just to friends but an infinite number of teenagers in the same boat."

The site strives to present information in a "best friend" way, she said. "When you're going to prom or dealing with certain situations, your best friend might be sick of hearing about it, but there are others with the same problem who want to talk about it."

While many prom-goers have yet to discover prom Web sites, tens of thousands, if not more, already have. During the peak season, PromGirl and Offtoprom each get about 30,000 unique visitors a day. Last Wednesday, PromGirl had 258,000 page hits. PromSpot registers about 3 million page views per month.

"We've been pleasantly swamped," Dixon said. "The phones here ring from 6:30 in the morning with the before-they-go-to-school crew, and then there are moms calling all day long and calls from after school until about 1 a.m. That's something I underestimated. I'm in Eastern time, and girls in L.A. are just finishing their homework when I'm getting ready to go to bed."

This is the busy season for the sites. A PromSpot member survey last year indicated most girls start shopping for dresses two months or more before their proms. Nearly half planned to spend between $100 and $200 on the dresses alone, and more than a third expected to fork over more than $100 on accessories. Nearly half expected to spend $20 to $50 more just for cosmetics or fragrances.

With that kind of cash flying around, the pressure is on individual prom-goers to make the best choices. That pressure often is transferred to the prom Web site operators, who realize the burden they bear in helping people with a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime experience.

"For many people, this is their first 15 minutes of fame, when they're a teenager and at a prom," Jacobs said. "But with a prom, they face so many grown-up experiences they've not done before. They want to look their best, come back with great pictures, and have a safe and fun experience."

Helpful sites

In addition to www.offtoprom.com, www.promspot.com and www.promgirl.com, the Internet is awash with sites to help prom- goers shop, plan or otherwise deal with the date's dilemmas. Some of them and their highlights are:

www.prom.com -- A list of links to buy dresses, shoes, tuxedos and other items