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Gift tokens leave gritted-teeth gratitude behind

To judge from the number of electronic commerce start-ups in recent months, it would be easy to think that traditional retailing is in danger of being rendered obsolete by the cyberspace version. But two young internet entrepreneurs beg to differ.

Just as The Gap claims that its traditional clothing shops and the internet store benefit each other, Jonathan Grey and Dominic Hawes insist that their venture can use the internet to bolster the high street.

Tomorrow they launch the jauntily named Jomono.com to catch the pre-Christmas rush for gift vouchers. Only, rather than using the latest technology just to send out more of a present that has tended to be regarded as a last resort, they are seeking to make gift vouchers a great deal more attractive and personal.

As with many ideas of this sort, the origins of Jomono lie in a pub. A year ago Mr Grey was listening to a friend as he described the tortuous and expensive business of sending a pres-ent from the United States.

At the time, 27-year-old Mr Grey was in the process of changing jobs and was not looking to set up a business.

But his experience with internet companies in San Francisco convinced him that there was a potential business opportunity in his drinking companion's tale of woe.

Deciding that gift vouchers held the key, he set about researching the market and to his surprise discovered that nobody had yet cottoned on to his idea. He decided to act.

As a result, last spring he and Mr Hawes, an internet marketing consultant, set about developing their concept and raising the pounds 500,000 from business angels that they felt they needed to get going.

From the start they determined that Jomono, a made-up name deliberately chosen because it is not associated with shopping and therefore does not limit the company's founders to one area of business, would set out to change the perception of gift vouchers.

Mr Grey says Jomono is seeking to use the internet to do this in three key ways. First, it is working on the basis that the important thing is not which stores are accessible to the sender of the voucher but which are close to the recipient. Second, it is seeking to move vouchers away from the idea that they are more likely to be offered by mass brands than premium ones. Finally, it is changing the thought process, to get away from the idea that a voucher is necessarily a thoughtless or, as he and Mr Hawes put it, a duff gift.

Clearly, the first change is made possible by the communication possibilities of the internet. To back up the second, the founders point to the presence of such retailers and other service providers as HMV, Hamleys, Heals, the video chain Blockbuster, the Marriott International hotels group and the in-vogue Japanese restaurant group Yo! Sushi. They are tackling the third through enabling consumers to personalise messages and support their choice of gifts with information supplied by Jomono's news service.

Though Christmas is obviously a key time for such a venture, the founders can see its value throughout the year. Among the services they are offering are a date reminder service that points out to a subscriber, for example, that a mother's birthday is coming up, and a gift registry that enables a subscriber to nominate favourite outlets and enable friends and family to donate to it online.

The service begins tomorrow with nine well-known brand names, but Mr Grey and Mr Hawes are confident of attracting 25 by Christmas and they believe that more will sign up as they realise the benefits.

However, while Mr Grey and Mr Hawes are keen to attract many more retailers, restaurants and other service providers to their website, and are even looking to move into Europe in the near future, they are not prepared to carry even the biggest names if they do not believe in them. This is because, though the brands pay for their presence on the site, Jomono puts its own reputation on the line by recommending them.

The founders, who now have a team of six at the company base in Brixton, south London, are conscious that in the digital world reputation counts for so much that they must be trusted to deliver promptly - generally the next day.