WEB ORDERING: Taking stock of ‘Net orders

Offering real-time inventory status online

According to the Catalog Age 1999 Consumer Catalog Shopping Survey, more than 60% of online shoppers cite “convenience” as the top reason to buy online. With that in mind, it’s becoming more important for online catalogers to provide real-time inventory status.

“You want to let your Internet customers know immediately if the item is available to be shipped or not,” says Ernie Schell, president of Marketing Systems Analysis, a Southampton, PA-based operations consultancy. “The worst thing you can do is let a customer find out that an item is out of stock in an e-mail the next day.”

“If you don’t know your availability, you stand a high probability of disappointing a customer, and a disappointed customer could be a lost customer,” says David Shepherd, president of Sears Wishbook, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears.

Sears Wishbook’s two Websites, tools marketer Craftsman.com and toy catalog Wishbook.com, outsource their fulfillment to ASD Systems in Dallas. By linking the Websites to ASD’s call centers and fulfillment facilities, Sears can offer online shoppers near real-time inventory status: Products are taken off the site as available within seconds after they’ve been sold and are made available for sale as soon as they arrive in the warehouse.

Talking numbers

Like Sears’s Shepherd, a number of other catalogers believe that Web customers should have access to the same real-time information as does a phone customer speaking to an order rep. But linking a catalog management system with your call center and e-commerce systems is no easy – nor cheap – task.

Consider that traditional catalog management systems typically cost between $5,000 and $50,000 or more, depending on functionality and the number of users. And systems that have real-time inventory status capability – such as Smith Gardner’s MACS – could cost between $150,000 and $300,000, depending on the number of users.

At Hanover Direct, only a fraction of the $60 million spent on an overhaul of its computer system went for adding real-time inventory reporting, says chief information officer Michael Contino. But Hanover subsidiary Keystone Fulfillment Services charges its clients $100,000 to add real-time capability.

Is real-time for you?

Right now, technology considerations as well as the expense are limiting the number of catalogers offering real-time inventory status to online buyers. And catalogers thinking about offering real-time status have to consider how often their inventory is updated, Schell says. “Is it every 5 minutes or every 30 minutes? If it’s every half-hour, that’s a long time on the ‘Net.”

Of course, many catalogers are still focusing more on selling their goods on the Web rather than on offering customers real-time inventory status. “That seems to be good enough for this year,” Schell says.

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