Few source in cyberspace

Using the Web to source for products would make catalog merchants’ jobs easier and more convenient-not to mention reduce travel expenses. But among respondents to Catalog Age’s exclusive Benchmark Report on Merchandising (see October issue), 36% haven’t even tried to source online. And of those respondents that have used the ‘Net to source, only 32% viewed it a “good” or “very good” product source.

Of the catalogers contacted for this article, the majority say the Web is more useful as a research tool-for new product updates, sources to contact, and even price comparisons-than as a true source of product.

“We do absolutely no sourcing online,” says Bob Gunther, spokesman for Coldwater Creek, the $238.9 million apparel, gifts, and home decor cataloger based in Sandpoint, ID. “We do a lot of face-to-face contact with our vendors and attend many trade shows instead.”

Gunther and numerous other merchants say that the Web falls short when it comes to sourcing “sensory” products such as textiles. As Philip Burke, vice president of White Plains, NY-based George Little Management, which operates 27 trade shows, says, “It’s hard to communicate color, texture, and weight over a flat screen.”

But the Internet can minimize legwork for catalog merchants. “We use the Web for some research, and our merchandisers are now able to receive e-mail from manufacturers for new product updates,” says Bob Piro, vice president of merchandising and operations for Chelmsford, MA-based Catalog Ventures, a subsidiary of ValueVision International and parent company of gifts catalogs Serengeti, Pyramid Collection, Nature’s Jewelry, Mind’s Eye, and NorthStyle.

“Sourcing merchandise online is something that could be very valuable if there is enough information,” says merchandise consultant Joan Litle, president of Lowell, MA-based Catalog Connection. “If I were looking for information on domestic goods manufacturers, for example, the Internet would probably save me hours of research time.”

Indeed, Web research can work if you know what you want and where to look for it. Sunnyvale, CA-based catalog merchandising consultant Kathy Revello says she recently combed the ‘Net for a specific type of camping tent, and found several Web pages of tents. The downside? “About 90% of what I found did not apply to what I was looking for,” she says.

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