The missing link?

Although most catalogers on the Internet claim to be transactional, several industry professionals believe that more than 90% of Internet marketers do not have fully integrated ordering and fulfillment systems. As a result, the overwhelming majority are handicapped when it comes to growing their electronic marketing channel.

Linking Web catalog operations with a catalog management system-which includes inventory management, fulfillment, customer service, and database management-lets you seamlessly transfer online orders to your main system, providing real-time order fulfillment and customer service. For instance, when a customer purchases on the Web, the information-product, credit card information, order history-is immediately sent electronically to the warehouse, where the order is picked, packed, and shipped.

Without such integration, service to Web customers can suffer, in that they do not have access to real-time fulfillment or service information. Moreover, these orders will likely have to be batched and input manually, further delaying fulfillment.

Phoenix, AZ-based Insight Direct, a ñ1 billion computer cataloger, has had its Website integrated with its catalog management systems since 1996. A Web customer who places an order with Insight can compare prices, check what’s in stock, and review order status in real time. And information about Web users is connected to Insight’s outbound telemarketers and linked to the firm’s 23 warehouses. The Website also links to selected Insight manufacturers and distributors.

Real-time Website integration has been a boon to Insight, says spokesperson Susan Heywood. Unassisted Web sales-completed without telephone assistance-are up 375% over last year. And in the fourth quarter of 1998, 7.3% of all Insight’s sales came from unassisted Web transactions.

But Web integration is a sophisticated and expensive process, says consultant Curt Barry, president of Richmond, VA-based F. Curtis Barry & Co. “It’s not something you can just take out of a shrink-wrapped package.” And many catalogers with Websites are reluctant or unable to invest large sums (costs can reach six figures, by some estimates) to develop such a program.

Indeed, Andy Johnson, president of e-commerce for ñ1.2 billion Minnetonka, MN-based general merchant Fingerhut, says the cost of Web integration “is more than we initially thought,” though he declined to give specifics. “But when you consider how it can improve your business, it’s worth it.” Other catalogers with integrated Websites include L.L. Bean, Sharper Image, and Eddie Bauer.–MDF

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