`What’s your excuse?’

Some 10% of b-to-b catalogers still don’t sell products from their Websites. Here, a few try to explain why

Jim Doherty says it’s because he’s not sure that his industry is mature enough. Dan Westrich says his firm is still evolving a strategy. Gerald Deban and Beth Devoto say their companies simply had to get something up and running right away.

These are some of the reasons – let’s not call them excuses – that business-to-business catalogers give for creating Websites that have limited, if any, direct-sales capabilities. And, in fact, b-to-bers are more likely than consumer marketers to have nontransactional Websites. Among con sumer cataloger respondents to Catalog Age’s Third Annual Online Marketing Survey, conducted in January 1999, only 1% did not sell products on their Website. In comparison, 10% of the b-to-b respondents did not sell merchandise online.

But while the business-to-business marketers that have yet to sell online no doubt believe their reasons are valid, industry observers don’t. “It’s crazy,” exclaims Tracy Emerick, president of Receptive Marketing, a consulting firm in Hampton, NH. “There are 68 million people [in the U.S.] online. I say, just get there. Your people are online.”

Nonetheless, Jim Doherty, president of Olympic Rescue, a Zion, IL-based cataloger of emergency medical services (EMS) supplies, is unsure. While he admits that “the trend is toward e-commerce” within the industry and says that Olympic Rescue “definitely plans to” move in that direction, Doherty has yet to commit to a timetable, largely because he doesn’t know if his customers are buying online.

Angelica Image Apparel, a $140 million-plus manufacturer/marketer of uniforms, is making a concerted effort to determine what its customers want from its Website. Right now, Website visitors can order only a handful of specials from its 60,000-SKU product line.

Building a site with limited transactional capabilities “was an offensive strategy to create brand awareness,” says Dan Westrich, MIS director for Chesterfield, MO-based Angelica. “We are trying to formulate our future strategy. Will we show all the products? We haven’t reached a consensus.”

To help get there, Angelica has formed a task force, headed up by Westrich, that is seeking input from both customers and sales reps to determine the best e-commerce course. “I hope we will do something within the next year,” Westrich says.

Tired of being among the minority of marketers that have yet to establish transactional Websites, J&L Industrial Supply is determined to make its entire product line of more than 145,000 metal-working tools and supplies available online by next month, says Beth Devoto, the Livonia, MI-based company’s marketing manager for e-commerce. When the site launched in July, customers could type in orders from J&L’s print catalog, but there was no shopping cart or point-and-click feature.

J&L, a division of $502 million JLK Direct Distribution, blames lack of time for its slowness in developing an online catalog. “We’d had a lot of requests from customers, and we decided that we could either wait [to put up a fully transactional site] or offer an interim solution,” Devoto says. “So far, we’ve had incredible results [with the interim site], with some customers using the site every single day.”

Like J&L, Chem Scientific, which sells scientific supplies to schools and other institutions, was tentative about e-commerce when it launched a nontransactional site last summer. “It was a matter of timing,” claims Gerald Deban, president of the Norwood, MA-based cataloger. “There was pressure to get online immediately, because most of our competition was already on the Web.” Now, however, it plans to make its full catalog available online by March.

But Chem Scientific, whose annual sales are less than $1 million, is still playing catch-up. And Sean Skilling, an e-business and branding strategist for Luminant Worldwide, a New York-based Internet consultancy, says the cataloger may already have missed out on some opportunities. “For instance, high schools that had never heard of Chem Scientific all of a sudden would have” because of its Website, Skilling says. The result could have been new business – but potential online buyers who visited the site would likely have clicked their mouse to a competitive, transactional site instead.

So would Chem Scientific – not to mention those other b-to-bers whose Websites remain nontransactional – have been better off not going online until it could support a transactional site? Not really. “It’s better to be doing something than nothing,” Skilling says. “But the more aggressively companies move toward committing to an online catalog, the better off they’re going to be as their clients move to online procurement.”