USPS Promotes Electronic Kiosk Program in Japan, China

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TOKYO - In January USPS and Sanyo Corporation completed a six month market test of electronic kiosks that allow Japanese consumers to browse through US catalogs and order on line from the screen without hassle.

The test used some 20 kiosks placed in the Tokyo and Kansai - Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto - metropolitan areas. Results have not been fully analyzed but once they are the market test program for "Market Boutique" may be expanded to 50 or 100 kiosk units.

Ultimately USPS hopes to install them across Japan in stores, shopping malls, office buildings and other sites. It has also discussed with Chinese postal officials the possibility of bringing in the "Market Boutique" program.

Should those discussions pan out, several thousand machines could be placed in major Chinese cities and trigger billions in catalog sales, one reason USPS is betting so heavily on the program's success.

Three prototype kiosks, larger than the later models, and with more actual products and space to display them, were put in place for a pilot test that ran from October 1996 to January 1997.

Charter members for the pilot project included Neiman Marcus Direct, Paul Frederick Men Style, Coldwater Creek, Storybook Heirlooms, International Golf Outlet (IGO) and Book of the Month Club.

Another five catalogers - dELiA*s, Eastbay, Bullock & Jones, U.S. Cavalry and allen allen - joined the market test phase. USPS expects the U.S. Mint catalog to join the project in the spring.

"We feel this sales channel has great potential in the Pacific rim and possibly in South America," USPS project manager Ann Wright said.

Paper catalogs and a few product samples are displayed in the kiosk so that the Japanese consumer can browse through it and see and feel the quality of the goods. Guides in Japanese explain how to use the system.

"Various help screens on the electronic unit discuss currency exchange rates, customs duties, size conversions, unconditional guarantees and other aspects of catalog buying, and, of course, they do it in Japanese.

"The units are designed to be self-service, but we provide an attendant at each unit in the initial period to answer questions and encourage consumers to try the electronic system." Payment is by credit card.

Results of the pilot tests were too small to be statistically significant, but they did show that consumers who had never shopped through an American catalog before could be reached through the kiosk.

More important, Wright said, was the pilot test demographic - unlike typical Japanese customers for US catalogs, kiosk shoppers were predominately male and older than average "personal import" shoppers.

"Perhaps most significant," Wright said, was that "every one of the orders was placed by a consumer who had never ordered from that catalog before."

Import Boutique invested heavily in advertising and promotion during the market test. The idea was to tie the kiosk to the normal store advertising for the site.

"We also conducted a major awareness campaign through direct mail and in personal import trade magazines like 'You New'," Wright said.

US merchants who agree to participate in the program are drawn in closely to assure effective communication among Sanyo, USPS and the merchant.

"Each time the merchant issues a new catalog, we need about 200 copies express shipped to Osaka. We also need a number of pieces of sample merchandise for display." Small give-away items are solicited for special promotions.

What's in it for USPS? First, it wants to attract US catalogers who already use the Global Package Link program for shipping parcels rapidly into key markets, and then bring in everyone else, thus swelling

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