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Kenneth Koppel, former president of Ziff Communications, is betting that owners of personal computers with CD-ROM drives are good prospects for mail-order shopping.

Mr. Koppel's company, Contentware, is developing CD-ROMs containing an assortment of interactive catalogs.

Contentware plans to distribute a minimum of 400,000 copies of the CD-ROM catalog starting in July, primarily by bundling them with mail-order PCs and software under agreements with direct marketers of computer products. A second disc is set for October.

Mr. Koppel, Contentware's president, said "well over a dozen" computer and non-computer marketers have agreed to include product listings on the discs, but declined to identify participants.

Contentware also plans to test distribution of the CD-ROM catalogs in computer stores, by subscription and as an offering in mail-order computer catalogs.

New York-based Contentware isn't the only company designing catalogs for the booming market for CD-ROM-equipped computers. Apple Computer recently completed a two-month test of a CD-ROM disc of catalogs, En Passant, that included 20 direct merchants such as Lands' End, L.L. Bean and Williams-Sonoma (AA, Feb. 28).

Mr. Koppel started his venture in 1992 after 20 years at Ziff, the nation's largest publisher of computer periodicals. Cox Enterprises, the Atlanta-based media company, and Applied Technology, a venture capital company in Lexington, Mass., recently signed on as investors.

"We're using their money to both accelerate the timetable and the scope of our software development, to increase our sales force and to increase the distribution arrangements for the discs themselves," said Mr. Koppel, who maintains a controlling stake in Contentware.

Mr. Koppel said he's not concerned about going up against a company with the resources of Apple.

"Interactive multimedia as applied to presenting products is so huge that there are going to be many competitors," he said. "I'm actually surprised there aren't more."

Contentware is exploring various ways to offer interactive direct merchandising, including selling over computer online services and offering interactive TV shopping.

But in initially targeting owners of mail-order PCs, Mr. Koppel thinks he can connect direct marketers with desirable prospects: People who have shown a willingness to spend thousands of dollars on mail-order wares and who probably are looking for ways to use their new CD-ROM drives.

"What it is for the merchant is a prospecting medium," he said, adding that using a disc is an alternative to sending out direct mail or using advertising to find new customers.

Consumers also could use the CD-ROM to search out mail-order merchants.

"The objective ... is to enable you to find merchants in the categories you're interested in and to learn enough about them and their products to decide whether you want to be a customer, which can include calling them up and ordering their [printed] catalog," Mr. Koppel said.

The CD-ROM will include text, photos, animation and audio.

Contentware is charging merchants about $5,000 to list 10 products on the first disc, including the cost of creating the catalog listing. Merchants who list more products get volume discounts. The disc can list up to 10,000 products.

Consumers must contact the merchant, typically by 800-number, to place an order.

By combining everything from computers to clothes on one disc, Contentware would appear to have more in common with an old-fashioned general catalog-like Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s defunct "Big Book"-than a narrowly targeted modern specialty catalog. Mr. Koppel thinks that variety will prove attractive to consumers.

"We're not aiming at a disc where a small number of very large household names dominate," he said. "Our real goal is to create a home shopping reference center."

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