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NATM Members Embracing E-Commerce Individually And Collectively

The NATM Buying Corporation has begun to embrace the Internet.

Though still trailing more web-savvy groups, notably Associated Volume Buyers with its b-to-c selling site, and Nationwide West, with its dealer finder function, NATM is taking the first steps toward integrating electronic commerce into its business model.

Perhaps the biggest initial hurdle was philosophical. Although the Internet was once regarded as a threat to its brick & mortar membership, NATM now understands the channel to be an indispensable tool for trade in the 21st century. To underscore the point, the group chose the theme “The Power of e: Connecting to the New Millennium,” for its annual meeting last month in Tucson, Ariz.

As the group further acknowledged in the forward to its 2000 directory, which was distributed at the gathering, “The future is e-driven. For NATM members, clients and suppliers, the future depends on the power of e-commerce and the electronic connections that are shaping and shrinking our business world. In our industry, where fast and effective deployment of online shopping and purchasing has become critical to our success, e-commerce is the strategy that will help NATM maintain and increase market share [and] will play an ever increasing role in business planning, operations, buying and sales.”

Putting words into deeds, NATM has hired former Tops Appliance executive Ernie Olson as director of operations, and charged him with developing a b-to-b website for the group that may eventually encompass consumer sales as well.

The site, explained NATM president and H.H. Gregg CEO Jerry Throgmartin, will support the rapid exchange of information between headquarters staff, members and suppliers, and should be operational within three months.

Eventually, he said, “there could be an umbrella NATM site that takes you to members via ZIP code. Three or four members are either developing or are actively involved in e-commerce strategies individually, and we as a group will share best practices. We’ll know more by the fall.”

Among NATM’s Internet elite is Madison, Wis.-based American. Jested senior VP Dave Shepard, “E-commerce is like teenage sex. Everybody says they’re doing it, but they’re either not doing it at all, or if they are, they’re not doing it very well.” Shepard includes American in the latter category, at least for the time being, but stressed that “it’s an important way to enhance your business.”

Similarly, BrandsMart president Mike Perlman believes retailers, both terrestrial and electronic, have a long way to go before perfecting the channel

“With the exception of the computer guys, I have yet to see anybody make money selling on the Internet,” Perlman said. “It’s good for selling $38 microwaves. People want to spend money, but they need to know why they should. That’s why the most profitable area of Value America was its infomercial.”

Nevertheless, Hollywood, Fla.-based BrandsMart is already planning several consumer enhancements to its recently launched information-only site, including the ability to track the status of an order and to know when a delivery is on its way.

Perhaps the most sophisticated of the NATM member cyberstores belongs to Morton Grove, Ill.-based Abt Electronics. The 15-month-old site, which enjoyed a 500% leap in first-quarter sales over the same period from its freshman year, is among the handful of online stores to receive Sony’s e-commerce blessing.

As president Mike Abt explained, “We’re taking our local philosophy to the national level by teaming up with real strong common carriers, doing a little bit of advertising, and pushing word of mouth.”

Noted general manager Phil Hannon, “Right now we’re working hard to partner with our vendors online. Sony was a start, and a big one for us. It’s nice to get in.”

“We’re also streamlining the checkout process,” Abt added. “To be online, you’ve got to be sharp and change all the time.”