Viking's Web Sites Snag Large Piece of Business

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LOS ANGELES - Viking Office Supplies opened a Dutch Web site last month, following the launch in February of a German site and the recent relaunch of its US site. All three are copies of the UK site developed a year ago.

"The old site in the US was not doing as well as we would like so we went to the new site. We are copying it from country to country," said Sean Clough, Viking's vice president of marketing.

"The German site has been up for two months and business that is coming through is just incredible. We had to alter the business rules to fit that market, but basically it is the exact same site as in the UK.

"We had to make changes for language and currency differences but we did that as part of our strategy when we built the UK site, i.e., make it adaptable so we could adjust currency, order entry and inventory system.

"We adjusted the screen for language length (German sentences tend to be far longer than those in English) and the US back-end system is relatively the same as in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. This is kind of plug and play."

Viking did what Clough called "a soft opening" in Germany by marketing to customers and best customers first.

Viking is now starting an advertising campaign to draw new customers to the site, but Clough conceded that people in Germany are not as Web-enabled as they are in the US and are still very much addicted to print catalog buying.

The percentage of orders is still small "but the early rampup shows the site will be more successful than was the UK site in a similar time period. In the UK we will do 5 percent of total Viking sales online this year and we would expect to do well over that in our second year in Germany."

German shoppers, Clough noted, are still flustered by shopping online "and we are having to make some adjustments based on that." A German customer coming into a site logs on and starts adding items to his shopping cart. When he logs off the items are still there.

"That's a good feature in the US but it confused the Germans and generated calls saying, 'I didn't order that, why is it in the cart,' even though we haven't delivered. So there is still some concern.

"A part of it is lack of experience and that will take time to build. We're not the first retailer to have an Internet presence in Germany but are early on in their curve of development."

The Netherlands, where Viking has its call center that handles the German market, did not have such problems with the Dutch far more used to the online shopping experience.

Viking did a soft launch in Holland as well, contacting only established customers. "We had an existing business in Holland that is growing very nicely and the programming infrastructure was there as well," he said.

Clough said Viking would fire up another European site soon but did not disclose which one. The natural choice is France, where Viking has been since the mid-90s and from where it supplies Belgium.

Viking entered the Italian market two years ago and struggled with poor postal performance for a long time. Recently, however, the business has finally become profitable, Clough said.

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