CONSUMER DIRECT

Many telescopes are trained at the sky, and a new truth is being revealed to all who are gazing: The stars are aligning rapidly in ways that favor consumer-direct selling on the Internet.There are many indications of this, chief among them the larger-than-expected rate of consumer buying over the Internet during the holiday period late last year. (See Page 13 for more on that.) But a lot has happened

Many telescopes are trained at the sky, and a new truth is being revealed to all who are gazing: The stars are aligning rapidly in ways that favor consumer-direct selling on the Internet.

There are many indications of this, chief among them the larger-than-expected rate of consumer buying over the Internet during the holiday period late last year. (See Page 13 for more on that.) But a lot has happened even since that quite recent event, all of which suggests that consumer-direct is the real thing.

Here are a few of the stars that are lined up right now:

It's reported on Page 13 of this week's issue of SN that Peapod, the Internet-based grocery retailer, is opening its second dedicated fulfillment center in two months, accelerating its move away from the store-picking device it originally used. This is clearly the way to do it.

It was reported in the January issue of Brand Marketing that Procter & Gamble is tinkering with ways to promote some of its products by way of the Internet. Brand Marketing is a sister publication of SN. Both are published by Fairchild Publications. And, P&G said last week it has made a media buy on America Online, which should lead to further Internet merchandising.

It was reported last week in an issue of Women's Wear Daily, another Fairchild publication, that many jeans makers are moving toward on-line, consumer-direct selling, Guess Inc. being the latest. Indeed, apparel of various types seems to be on the leading edge of consumer-direct selling.

And, of course, this is just the most recent and superficial sampling of the auguries that strongly suggest consumer-direct selling is poised to become a great force in retailing. However, there is one great hazard connected with this entire phenomenon, namely the vital relationship between manufacturers and retailers. As manufacturers move to consumer-direct selling, they bypass the traditional distribution and retailing networks that have yielded their sole customer-contact point since the beginning of time.

P&G is working on this problem by means of its Store Finder Program, which links customers interested in P&G products from the P&G Web site to those of retailers, from which customers make the purchase, either on-line or by selecting a nearby retail outlet from an address list.

That's one possible solution, although there are others. The jeanswear manufacturer is considering an alternative selection of brands and products only available on-line. Cosmetics vendors are working on the problem by simply keeping a low profile about the whole thing to avoid alienating retailers, by affixing higher price points to on-line retailing or by leaving successful promotional events in the exclusive domain of traditional retailers.

In the grocery trade, some of this thinking can be instructive to traditional wholesalers, many of whom would do well to seek alternative ways to reach consumers.