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'Flash' retailer Gilt Groupe gussies up for IPO in 2012

Gilt Groupe, a "flash" sales site for designer clothes, plans to join its peers Groupon and Amazon as a public company, perhaps by the end of next year, when the company will be close to generating $1-billion in annual sales.

"I think it's entirely possible that in 2013, depending on the markets and depending on how things are going, that we would look to go public," Kevin Ryan, chief executive of New York-based Gilt, told the FT.

Market turmoil has forced many companies to delay their initial public offerings this year, but Mr. Ryan says this has not affected Gilt's timetable for a float.

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Gilt and rival sites have attracted mainly female customers with steep discounts offered for a limited time and advertised with urgent emails. They are among the fastest-growing segments of online retail, which is itself expanding faster than traditional retail amid economic malaise in the U.S. and Europe.

"We are certainly plenty big enough to go public. The question is, is it the right time, do you want to spend the time on that?" said Mr. Ryan. "We'd look at the process in 2012."

However, an IPO is unlikely in the next nine months, he added, as no meetings with advisers have yet been held, with a late-2012 debut at "the earliest."

The hype around private sale sites – generated in the past three years by operators and customers as well as internet fashion sites – still exceeds their ability to generate profits as they invest to acquire more customers, according to independent retail analysts.

In addition to heavily discounted fashion, Gilt offers holidays and, with the recent acquisition of BuyWithMe, a Groupon-style daily deals site. In May, it raised $138-million from investors including Goldman Sachs and Softbank of Japan, valuing the four-year-old company at $1-billion.

Mr. Ryan expects Gilt's annualized turnover will be close to $1-billion after posting gross sales of $500-million in its financial year to June. "In the fourth quarter next year, which is the best quarter, we'll be getting close to that run rate," he said. Although some of its businesses are profitable, the company – which has almost 1,000 employees – does not comment on overall profitability.

Many of Gilt's clothes failed to sell at traditional bricks-and-mortar stores. For luxury brand owners, flash sales sites provide a more glamorous means of shifting them than off-price retailers such as TJ Maxx or its European sibling TK Maxx.

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Stacey Widlitz, an independent retail analyst, said: "As long as the economy is the way it is [the business model]is sustainable. When things turn around, the question is do these websites get a lot less product and do designers want to shy away from even being affiliated with them. Right now, they need each other."

Mr. Ryan insists the economy impacts Gilt "less than you'd think ... a recession is slightly more helpful for me."

Gilt's main rivals in the U.S. are Rue La La, HauteLook, Ideeli and MyHabit, a site Amazon launched in May. All are focused on reaching what Mr. Ryan describes as his target audience: cash-rich, time-poor urban consumers.

Mr. Ryan says 65 customers have spent more than $100,000 on the site, with another 10,000 to 20,000 who have spent more than $10,000, out of a total of nearly 1.5 million buyers.

International competition is intensifying between Gilt and Vente-Privée, which pioneered the online flash sales model in France. On Friday, Gilt added the ability to ship purchases from its distribution centres in New York and Japan to 90 new countries, while Vente-Privée launched in the U.S. this month.

International shipping is "step number one before we go global," Mr. Ryan said, informing decisions in the coming months about marketing resources, new distribution centres and acquisitions. "A year from now, we'll probably do close to $100-million [in sales]outside the United States," he added.

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As the winners separate from the also-rans in the online-deals market, Gilt plans to make more opportunist acquisitions like BuyWithMe, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"There is going to be considerable consolidation in the worldwide daily deals and flash sales space," Mr. Ryan said, especially as valuations fall.

"The costs of going public have gone up, measured in every dimension, certainly financial as well as time-wise – and the alternatives to going public have got better. There used to be no secondary market, for example. That continues to evolve every year."

With files from The FT's Barney Jopson in New York

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