'No area is out of reach'

John Palmer is no tech-head; he sees the Web as a great way of putting people in touch. This vision has made LetsBuyIt.com one of the world's fastest-growing online retailers
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The Independent Online

If someone had told John Palmer three years ago that by the turn of the millennium,he would be one of the largest suppliers of Christmas trees in Europe, he might have chuckled anddismissed the thought.

If someone had told John Palmer three years ago that by the turn of the millennium,he would be one of the largest suppliers of Christmas trees in Europe, he might have chuckled anddismissed the thought.

It wasn't his biggest goal, or even a small one: he had his hands full aschief executive of Bates Malaysia, the largest communications group in that country. Hailing fromMelbourne, he had first worked to become marketing manager of Mattel Toys in Australia; then he leftfor the Middle East, and stayed in Asia for nine years. Palmer, now 39, came from a family that ranits own manufacturing business, and had long wanted a firm of his own. But the lure of corporate lifewas strong: "There's always that extra rung to climb," he recalls.

Palmer claims that herecognised the Internet's potential some years ago, but that it didn't click with his owndissatisfaction until he met Johan Stael von Holstein, of the Icon Media Lab, in 1997. Stael vonHolstein had a very simple idea. It was based on the old co-operative society model: that if enoughpeople with a common goal got together over the Internet, they could leverage a greater amount ofbargaining power upon manufacturers and cut out the middlemen. Palmer saw that he was the perfectpartner, eager to plough his own marketing and advertising expertise into a quickly developing field.

LetsBuyIt.com, formed last November, was the result of their conversations. It's a company thatsends out teams find the best deals in everything from perfume to holidays, then aims to aggregateconsumers and drive down prices. Information is posted on the website, consumers file theirintentions, and the negotiation begins.

Home and garden products have proved popular "co-buys";2,500 people, says Palmer, have ordered Christmas tree via the site. A pair of Salomon skis might setyou back £370 in the shops, but members of LetsBuyIt.com can save £81 with a "best price"- the lowest possible, if enough sign up - of £289. Palmer plans to have 14country-specific sites by the end of next year. It launched its first in Sweden in April, and wentlive in the UK at the beginning of October.

Palmer plays the action man to Stael von Holstein'svisionary. "There's this story about Johan making a presentation to a group of Volvo executives,saying, imagine this guy Bob, in America. He goes down to the dealer and says 'What's my discount?'There's none, so he goes home, goes to his computer, and types in 'Who else out there wants to buy aVolvo?' This story has gone down in urban myth, and even Nicholas Negroponte has used it. It didn'tactually happen, but the penny dropped," says Palmer.

"To be able to do what we're doing welltakes a lot of money. It's not cheap - in the first year, we will have spent $55m to do thisproperly. In me, Johan saw someone who had built brands and made things happen. The reach of theInternet is incredible. There are no demographic or geographic areas you can't get to. For me, theInternet is not about technology, it's about adding value to make people's lives better. I'mdefinitely not a tech-head - I'm a people person. Although I use the Internet a lot, I use it forbooking tickets, not talking in chat rooms."

His company now employs more than 100 workers acrossnine countries; through the venture, Palmer claims, he has learnt more about people management thanabout technology. "It's all about finding the right people to execute the plan. I've worked with somemaniacal people, and that has taught me not to be too emotional about the way you do business. Youhave to build a team spirit. I've seen good people destroyed by destructive personalities, and I don'twant that to happen."

LetsBuyIt.com is already well-established in Scandinavia, where Internetpenetration is high, and there are plans to launch in the US next year. Palmer feels confident thatBritish users will embrace the idea with the same enthusiasm. "The concept is easy to understand: theInternet connects the chain by bringing together people that shop. The more that shop, the more theprices drop. I don't think that Britons are more cautious than the rest of the world; in fact,distribution here is far more inefficient than elsewhere, and Brits have been far more ripped off," hesays. "I think they have had enough, and will see that this is very timely."

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