IN THE FAST LANE

Equipped with a map of the United States, Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment officials watched in real-time as nearly 2,000 Kmart stores -- one by one -- were merchandised for the home video release of "Spider-Man."The map was filled with red dots, each one signifying a different Kmart store. Each time a store was completed -- meaning displays were set up and stocked with DVD and VHS units and point-of-purchase

Equipped with a map of the United States, Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment officials watched in real-time as nearly 2,000 Kmart stores -- one by one -- were merchandised for the home video release of "Spider-Man."

The map was filled with red dots, each one signifying a different Kmart store. Each time a store was completed -- meaning displays were set up and stocked with DVD and VHS units and point-of-purchase materials were in place -- the red dot on the map turned to green. Courtesy of online digital images, Columbia officials could get even a closer look at the project. By clicking on the green dot, they could see actual store conditions and exactly what their consumers were seeing.

"Virtually live, we were able to get answers to important questions, like where the display was set up in-store and how it looked," said Sharona Baichman, director of retail merchandising, Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment, Culiver City, Calif

Conducted this past November, the project was deemed to be a success, as 7 million DVD And VHS units were sold that first day.

The "Spider-Man" rollout exemplifies the increasingly fast pace of in-store merchandising services. Along with using Interactive Voice Response systems, handheld computers and laptops, merchandising service organizations are relying more on the Internet as a way to get their clients information faster and more accurately.

Nearly 40% of manufacturers have increased their use of MSOs, according to the 2002 Survey Merchandising Services Practices, by the National Association for Retail Merchandising Services, Plover, Wis., the association that represents MSOs. These manufacturers count on MSOs to conduct various store-level activities, including new-item introductions, planograms and promotional displays. And they rely on MSOs to report back on the status of such projects as fast as possible.

MSOs are working to do just that, as 76% of MSOs said they supply retail data to their clients in three days or less last year, up from 49% who said the same in 2001, according to the just-released Operational Benchmarks Study from NARMS.

Half of MSO respondents said they use the Internet to allow their clients to access shelf information. Of these, more than one-third (38%) provide such information on the same day of service, according to the report. Most of these companies have a Web site that includes some type of organizational or analytical functionality.

MSOs are using the Internet not only to communicate with their clients, but also their workforce. Two-thirds of respondents to the NARMS Benchmarks study report that 40% or more of their merchandisers have Internet access at home, up from one-half who reported the same in 2001. At the same time, 64% of those surveyed said that they communicate project-related material to their field workforce via the Internet, up from 36% in 2001.

"Our industry is becoming Internet-centric," said Ralph Bartolotta, chairman, NARMS. Bartolotta is also president of Division21, St. Paul, Minn., a merchandising and technology information services company.

CRS/Lawrence, a Plymouth, Minn., third-party merchandiser, is in the process of launching an Internet-based system, according to Amy Holzman, executive vice president. Doing so will enable it to provide more efficient reporting, real-time client information and completion tracking.

The Internet also will reduce the amount of data entry and the potential for human error. The Internet is especially helpful with exception reporting, said Jamie Stickles, vice president, Certified Marketing Services, a Kinderhook, N.Y., merchandiser.

Exception reporting notifies clients about problem areas, such as if a merchandiser could not locate the product in-store or encountered a store manager who refused to allow POP materials to be used.

"Exception reporting enables manufacturers to track a display or send a new one to the store in cases where the product is not there," Stickles said.

Exception reporting is critical to Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, Kan., said Scott Bales, Hallmark's installation manager. The reason for this is that it needs to know the status of the project on the day of installation.

It requires daily reporting because if there's a problem -- like if the truck didn't arrive on time -- the faster it knows about it, the faster it can react. This helps it maintain good relationships with its retailer customers.

"If we didn't respond immediately to certain situations, our relationship with the retailer would be put at risk," Bales said.

To add even more value to the program, CRS may equip its merchandisers with digital cameras so that photos of store conditions can be downloaded and viewed by clients over the Internet.

"It will improve the transfer of information between us and our clients, and us and our field staff," Holzman said.

Bill Bartels, vice chairman of Spar, said the Internet is critical for time-sensitive projects, especially video releases like "Spider-Man." That's because theatrical DVD and VHS releases have a street date, or an official date and time when they can be sold to the public.

To meet consumer demand, it's often a rush to get displays up and stocked for the release. This is certainly the case for a release like "Spider-Man," which generated over $400 million at the box office and was expected to be in high demand.