Retailers test the waters of selling nationally online

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Sports memorabilia retailer Jim Martin wanted to test the Internet as a sales tool.

So the VP of Collectors Resource, a Minneapolis company, tried placing ads on local Web site Channel 4000 last year.

Sales didn't outpace projections, but Mr. Martin liked the audience he drew: educated, upscale buyers. Better yet, most hailed from sports-intensive regions across the country.

`SPOT MARKET' BUYS

Because the memorabilia market is driven by a passion for the home team, Mr. Martin decided to tap a service that could provide "spot market" online buys. So he bought space on five city sites--Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles--from the 14 offered by Digital City.

"Sports is followed on a regionalized basis," said Mr. Martin, whose Digital City program launched May 6. "From our standpoint, the problem with the Internet is it's way too broad, and you can't focus."

Smaller local or regional advertisers have long considered the Internet "the great equalizer," an advertising medium that can level the playing field and make even small companies appear large. But does it deliver sales?

For companies like Collectors Resource, near-term sales aren't as important as building brand awareness in new markets.

Bruce Travel, a three-store travel agency based in Hallandale, Fla., launched its Web site on local provider Power Images' Leisure Web mall two years ago. Since that time, non-local traffic has grown to 97% of the hits the site receives, said VP Gary Cossin. The company turns about 5% of that traffic into sales.

In addition to listings on search engines, the site gets traffic from its association with such companies as Blockbuster Video, The Sports Authority and the Miami Dolphins, each of whom are part of another Power Images site, Florida Marketplace.

LINKS WITH 4 CRUISE LINES

Though Mr. Cossin admits he's "really not breaking large numbers" with Internet sales (he doesn't take credit cards online), he's linked with four major cruise lines.

Within 10 years, 35% of his sales will be from the Internet, he predicted.

"We wanted to get our niche, which is cruises, onto the Web into the next century," said Mr. Cossin. "I figure in 10 years, people will be doing this at home from their TVs, instead of getting up and going to a travel agency."

At Carnival Airlines, a Fort Lauderdale-based company with a strong local presence and service to the Northeast, the hope was to create a Digital City site that could increase the company's Florida image, while also boosting its awareness up north, said Cindy Christen, manager of sales promotion for the airline.

BUILDING A DATABASE

The move to Digital City followed a banner ad on an AOL travel section in February. The resulting traffic amounted to more than 1,000 e-mail addresses added to the database daily for two weeks, and 700 telephone calls from people responding to a promotional offer, she said.

As a regional carrier, Carnival executives are not as concerned that consumers outside their traffic cities aren't aware of the company, said Ms. Christen. What the company needed was a "virtual salesperson" who would be available 24 hours daily.

"It was building up our e-mail base," she said. "It was very effective."

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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