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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Catalog evolving from print to Web, May 5, 2006, 9C.

When Sears, Roebuck, & Company began using its catalog to sell products in the late 1800s, a new way of doing business sprang to life.  Selling products through catalogs to customers dispersed across the country allows companies freedom from some limitations of traditional business. 

The traditional way of selling products required businesses to have physical stores that customers would visit and carry away their purchases.  Stores had to be located near their customers.  For customers, the only products available for purchase were those offered in nearby stores.  Market reach and product selection were limited when sales and exchanges required direct interaction between stores and customers. 

The developments in transportation that arose from the industrial revolution and the succeeding ability to quickly distribute mail and parcels to people across the country allowed businesses to greatly expand their potential markets and gave customers access to products that were not locally available.  To become a catalog business, companies had to design, print, and distribute their catalogs to people through the mail and they had to ship products to customers.

The Internet revolution of the late 1900s further enhanced the abilities of companies to do business with customers in distant locations.  Unlike printed catalogs, web-based catalogs can present real-time prices and product offerings and they require no additional costs from companies for more people to view them (e.g., the costs for 100 and 100,000 customers to view a web-based catalog and shop through a website are essentially identical).  In addition, e-commerce eliminates the printing and postage expenses of catalog production and distribution and the time spent waiting for order payments to be received and accepted has become negligible.  Web technologies also allow businesses to sell products 24 hours a day and accept on-line payments without additional sales staff.

E-commerce sites can be designed and managed internally or contracted out to companies that specialize in designing and maintaining business websites.  Such solutions can produce websites that are capable of on-line payments, inventory management, and integrated customer service. 

For those who might want to gradually move onto the web or do so with a minimal investment, there are a variety of third party companies that offer e-commerce packages for nominal fees.  Some e-commerce packages require little more than entering product descriptions, pictures, and prices into templates (e.g., Yahoo! Merchant Solutions) while others require a company to have an existing website (e.g., Paypal Merchant Tools).

As discovered more than a century ago, offering products to customers beyond the local market creates new sales and growth opportunities.  Web technologies have made it even easier and cost effective for businesses to sell products to customers outside local markets.  As more people begin to use the Internet, companies should explore ways to offer their products to the world through the web.  

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved