TARGETING HIGH-INCOME singles IN SEARCH OF ROMANCE

IS hELPING mATCHMAKER DEBRA WINKLER BOOST REVENUE

AND FEND OFF COMPETITION FROM INTERNET sERVICES

Just as e-commerce is proving a major challenge for brick-and-mortar retailers, online dating services have quickly become a popular alternative to traditional matchmaking.

In response, some old-fashioned dating services are focusing on market niches considered beyond the reach of the newfangled Internet competition.

In Beverly Hills, Debra Winkler Personal Services is targeting the upper echelon of single professionals with a division known as "Special Search." Clients are frequently multimillionaires who no longer have to work for a living and are looking for a partner to share a life of leisure.

"We go outside our existing database to find people in the real world who fit the requirements of our clients," said founder and chief executive Debra Winkler. "For example, we will attend social functions around Los Angeles and invite people we think are a good match to come in for an interview."

Since its launch in 1998, the service has been a key factor in the growth of the company, which saw revenue jump from $1.9 million in 1998 to $2.5 million in 1999, according to Winkler.

Other services target the not-so-rich. Fees can total a few thousand dollars for clients who want to arrange several dates through the firm's database of about 5,000 members.

That's quite a bit more than the $12 to $20 a month that most Internet dating services charge. But Winkler doesn't seem too concerned about the low-cost competition.

"The Internet is more like the personal ads used to be," she said. "The problem is that you don't know anything about these people, and you're totally on your own trying to figure that out. Our clients come to us because they want the personal service, not because they want the anonymity of the Internet."

Sometimes that personal touch can save a lot of heartache. Craig Donaldson, company president, recalls how one former client thought she had found love online.

"She had been courted by a gentleman from England for six months, and she was ready to move to England and marry this man," Donaldson said. "Then she got a message from him saying he was married and that she couldn't come."

Socially acceptable

In recent years, the use of matchmaking services has grown rapidly. One reason has been the proliferation and popularity of online dating services, which have helped break down the stigma once attached to the practice.

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