They won't replace stores, but on-line services are becoming more commercial. And more cosmopolitan. CompuServe claims 2 million subscribers in about 100 countries. America Online, at one million customers and counting, is headed for Japan and Europe.
Does that mean international sales are just a keystroke away for entrepreneurs with a modem-equipped PC?
Well, sort of. On such venues as the CompuServe Electronic Mall, small companies can gain international exposure without leaving home. Still, overseas sales remain more a trickle than a stream.
Florida Fruit Shippers joined the CompuServe mall in 1985. That move allowed the Gulfport, Fla., produce stand to expand "without making the capital investment in more stores and staff," says owner Rick Del Greco. Approximately 60% of Del Greco's $250,000 in annual sales are on-line transactions. International orders are few, "but they're growing as CompuServe expands into Europe," he adds.
When CompuServe translated its software into German and lowered the sign-up cost, Florida Fruit Shippers started seeing German orders. "We were very excited," says Del Greco. He also has a list of 25 Japanese who've expressed interest.
Computer Express, in Sudbury, Mass., started out on CompuServe 10 years ago and does 50% of its business through CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online, and several storefronts on the Internet. Cofounder Philip Shier estimates that of his $10 million in revenue, 5% is international. "But you should call me in six months. I just hired someone who is taking over the international side."
CompuServe merchant Adventures in Foods (known as the Cheeseboard on Prodigy), in Hampton, N.H., ships to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Says owner Herb Heller, "Being on-line helps us notice niches faster." That's true also for Parsons Technology, in Hiawatha, Iowa. "Australia is a few years behind the United States" in technology, Bob Parsons says. A $42-million software publisher, Parsons has sold its products in 75 countries -- 10 through CompuServe, whose demographics mirror Parsons's heavily male customer base.
Coffee Anyone? in Pleasanton, Calif., recently shipped its CompuServe mall orders to Germany and Australia via UPS expedited service. In one case, says owner Rosemary Belssner, the shipping cost about $20 more than the coffee itself.
Shipping presents problems for many companies. Other issues: how to list prices in local currency and translate product descriptions. While some of CompuServe's services appear, for example, in German, text is in English in the mall.
-- Susan Greco with Karen Carney* * *