Tallying the Net results

Cynthia Riggs is the owner of Making It Big, a Cotati, CA-based catalog that sells plus-size natural-fiber clothing. Annual sales, $2.5 million; annual circulation, 120,000.

Making It Big has had a Website for five years and an online ordering system since 1996. When we started the site, we were on the cutting edge of technology and had the benefit of being one of the few catalogers to have online ordering capabilities. Now that the Web is a part of everyday life and more technology is constantly being introduced, it is more difficult to stay current.

But the Web offers many advantages to niche catalogers like myself. We are accessible to a large population of potential buyers whom we could not reach through mailings of our print catalog. Our site receives hundreds – sometimes thousands – of hits per day. Online requests for catalogs have increased over the years to the point that we seldom reach out to other companies for list rentals or exchanges. Online buyers are by far our fastest-growing customer base.

Frank Lukovits is the co-owner of the Tyngsboro, MA-based Weather Affects, a catalog of weather-related products. Annual sales, $4.5 million-$5 million; annual circulation, 1.5 million.

The Web has really forced us to be more open-minded in the way that we approach and conduct business. The depth and variety of Websites is growing every day, creating tougher competition and more price-conscious and savvy consumers. From an operational standpoint, the Web has forced us to scrutinize our customer service. Because customers are not speaking with live operators and getting instant feedback, we had to refine how clearly our customer service policy reads on the Website.

As far as trends in driving traffic to the site, we find that our print catalog is a good way to advertise our URL and recruit people to visit us online. Traffic to the site has doubled this year, which is also due to our registration with high-profile search engines. One particular service, GoTo.com, has been extremely helpful in increasing traffic. Unlike other search engines that rank your site based on the number of hits, GoTo.com allows you to bid for your ranking on its engine. We offset any additional cost by doing all Web design and maintenance inhouse.

Kevin Kardasz is the manager of information services for Rossi Pasta, a Marietta, OH-based cataloger of specialty pastas. Annual sales, less than $1 million; annual circulation, 200,000.

Overall, the Web has had a positive effect on the business; it now accounts for 30% of our direct marketing sales. The Web has lowered our customer service cost while improving customer access to our catalog and products.

Rossipasta.com has been operational since June ’98, and we added online ordering a year later. Because our call center is part of our corporate office, in the past we were able to take calls only 45 hours each week, during regular business hours in the eastern time zone. Now our customers can order online 24 hours a day.

Also, our own statistics show that catalog requesters from the Net are three times more likely to make a purchase than requesters from traditional channels such as advertising, response cards, and phone calls.

Because there is unlimited space to showcase product and extensive copy, the Web has become the most effective way to convince readers to buy the products. On the other hand, it’s a lot of work to maintain the Website, and because we do everything inhouse, it is difficult to find time to update it more than twice a month. When we priced professional employment services to get temporary workers to help with the site, we were shocked at the astronomical rates. Our solution was to hire two relatively inexpensive summer interns to help us with our Website.

Finally, the Web has really helped Rossi Pasta offer sales and special promotions. We can put overstocks on sale online and sell it quickly. We also test new products on the site before we decide if we are going to go through the expense of adding them to the print catalog.

With his father, Anthony, Andy Correa runs the Edgecomb, ME-based AGA Correa and Son, a catalog of custom-designed jewelry. Annual sales, $4 million; annual circulation, 1.7 million.

The Web has made a huge impact on our company. Within 15 months we have seen 12% of our sales come from the Net. We haven’t acquired a lot of new customers, but many existing buyers find the Web more convenient and are using it to place their orders. We started an informational site in September 1997 and added e-commerce capabilities to it in June 1999. Because all of our merchandise is designed inhouse, we thought that the Internet would be a good vehicle to educate potential customers about our products.

Currently we are registered with search engines such as Northern Light, Yahoo!, HotBot, WebCrawler, and InfoSeek. We have decided banner ads are too expensive to be effective right now, but we will be starting e-mail marketing soon. For three years, we have been asking our phone-order customers for their e-mail addresses, but the bulk of our e-mail list is people who have already ordered from us online.

We have had a lot more customer feedback since we became a presence on the Web, and we now make it a point to respond as fast as possible because we need only to write an e-mail rather than a formal letter. This carries over into the way in which we deal with our vendors as well. We used to play a lot of telephone tag, but now we are able to get in touch with our vendors and suppliers faster via e-mail.

ow has the Web changed your business? It’s no surprise that the small catalogers interviewed are enthusiastic about e-commerce: The Internet now accounts for up to 30% of their direct marketing sales. The catalogers also appreciate how much easier it is to educate prospects and get rid of overstocks via the Web. Of course, e-commerce has its drawbacks – it can be tough for a small company to manage an online and an offline business. But that’s a small price to pay for the numerous benefits.

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