By NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Once prone to raising a well-tweezed eyebrow at the mention of the Internet, the cosmetics industry is starting to take e-commerce more seriously. And that has prompted local businesses to hop into the fray.

In April, Murad Inc., which for the past 10 years has sold its wares solely in salons and spas, quietly began selling its products online. The El Segundo-based company is even slipping its Web address into print ads in such magazines as Vogue and Elle.

Woodland Hills-based Sebastian International, which has been online for three years, plans to sell its products to distributors through the Web in a pilot program by the end of the year. The company has seen steady interest in its site, logging about 900 questions a month on product information and beauty tips.

For upscale cosmetics companies like these, creating a new distribution outlet is a sensitive matter. Ever protective of their image, these companies carefully avoid distributing their products in low-end retail outlets that might damage their highbrow reputation.

In fact, the Web is so new that cosmetics companies aren't sure whether being an e-tailer is an upscale or downscale thing to do.

Major suppliers of cosmetics also are wary of damaging longstanding relationships with salons and some department stores by creating their own distribution outlets.

"Distributors are the foundation of the industry, yet with the Internet, there is risk of cutting them out," said Michael Spano, executive director of the Beauty and Barber Supply Institute, which represents 700 manufacturers. "Historically, the distributor has added value to the channel by providing information and sales expertise."

"It's a fine line we walk," said Hilarie Murad, director of consumer sales and marketing with Murad Inc. and daughter of founder Howard Murad. "But there are salons that don't carry our product and many people don't go into salons to buy skincare (products)."

The temptation to launch cosmetics Web sites is too great for the established companies to avoid much longer, especially because newer upstarts are already making a killing on the Internet.

"The market, which is one of the few untapped consumer industries, is exploding," said Blaine Mathieu, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose.

Internet marketing experts expect the virtual shelves to be bursting with cosmetics products in the coming months. By Thanksgiving alone, a dozen or so companies will have launched virtual shops, with Web addresses such as Gloss.com, Beauty.com, Beautyjungle.com, iBeauty.com, Beautyscene.com and Ionbeauty.com.

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