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Consumer heavyweights race to build UK women's portal

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Consumer publishing houses are crowding into the UK's underdeveloped Women's website sector.

We say "underdeveloped", because no mass-market web site for women actually spring to mind. But in coming months, there could be four or five heavyweight companies jockeying for position in this market. IPC, the UK's biggest consumer publishing house, has gone cap in hand to Cinven, the supplier of its MBO finance, for £25 million to fund the development and launch of IPC electric, The Observer reports.

National Magazines is launching a UK-centric version of women.com (they share the same owner in Hearst Magazines) sometime soon. And the Daily Mail, a mid-market tabloid which boasts the biggest percentage of female readers of any UK newspaper, is also preparing for a "women-related site", code-named charlottestreet.com, The Observer reveals.

Throw into the pot Handbag.com launched last week by the Telegraph group and Boots, the high street chemist and UK household institution, and you've got a heady brew.

But wait there's more. Lurking in the background is Time Warner, said to be "investing millions in a European venture that will cut across some of the areas covered by women.com and IPC electric".

The Net land-grab for British women is prompted by the US success of women.com and iVillage, each of which claims 4 million unique users a month. Women.com has a head-start over IPC electric - it's got the infrastructure, the software and the content already in place. IPC is more difficult to call. It's got the content, the brands, the paper distribution - but are its pockets deep enough?

Our eyebrows were raised by IPC's decision to seek external finance to build its site. This probably has a lot to do with the company's need to conserve cash in the run up to flotation (sometime next year, we guess). IPC bosses bought the company from Reed in 1997 for £860 million -- the interest payments are huge and they need to recapitalise the business on the stock market. They also need to supply their VC with a reasonably quick exit route. Finally, we trust IPC electric is a working title - as a brand name it sucks. ®

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