An occasional report on experiments in marketing.

Grand CD-catalog illusion. the place: the first annual Media/Options show, Manhattan. The speaker: Ted Leonsis, CEO of Redgate Communications, based in Vero Beach, Fla. -- "packager" of the much-publicized CD-ROM catalog En Passant. The audience awaits a demonstration of En Passant's multimedia fireworks, and anticipation mounts. The list of big-name participants lights up the wall-size screen: Tiffany & Co., 800-Flowers, L.L. Bean, Biobottoms, Lands' End, Williams-Sonoma.

Poor Leonsis can't get his mouse to work. But the crowd waits. And waits. Finally, we see a pair of L.L. Bean pants, modeled by a young woman, change color. This isn't much of a thrill. One businessman shouts, "Change her shirt!" Another mutters: "I could have opened a catalog and ordered by now!" The new world of advertising is no snap.

En Passant, Leonsis tells his restless audience, was created as a way to give Macintosh users an interactive at-home shopping experience. In a test, he continues, consumers ate it up: 55% spent more than an hour checking out the pilot program's 4,000 or so products. A full 80% were introduced to new catalogs. And 57% said they intended to buy. But they couldn't buy electronically. That feature is yet to come.

Optical Data Corp., in Warren, N.J., was one of the hopeful small companies present at Leonsis's embarrassing demo. "Paper doesn't quite do justice to our product," says marketing vice-president J.D. Solomon. Optical's best-seller, "Windows on Science," is a videodisc-based grade-school program played on TV. "If we could market it on something like an En Passant, it would be great," Solomon says wistfully.

Scenes from an on-line mall. If the Home Shopping Network is the last place you'd advertise, perhaps your product is better suited for the PC screen. The CompuServe Electronic Mall trumpets an upscale, mostly male audience of 2 million who've asked for more travel services and sporting goods vendors on the mall.

"There's definitely room for niche mom-and-pop companies," says CompuServe's Cindy Dale, who also sees demand for kids' toys. Mall rent starts at $20,000 a year. Tenants include retail and catalog giants J.C. Penney, Hammacher Schlemmer, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as tiny companies Coffee Anyone? and Adventures in Food. Call Keith Arnold at 614-538-3519 for more information.

Altered states. Lorraine Miller is owner of Cactus & Tropicals, a Salt Lake City nursery and garden center approaching $2 million in sales. A do-it-yourself marketer, Miller had enjoyed great results with desktop publishing. Still, she wasn't prepared for the response to last fall's mailer. The surreal cover of that six-by-nine-inch card was designed to attract attention. But some customers took it for real. "People said, 'I want this plant!" reports Miller. Her designer created the "hybrid" with the aid of Adobe Photo Shop software.

* * *