High street's big names go on-line

BY NIGEL COPE

Some of Britain's leading retailers made their first foray into home shopping by computer yesterday. Now anyone with a computer, a modem and a subscription to the Compuserve on-line information system, can sit at home and buy wine from Tesco, books from WH Smith, CDs and videos from Virgin and hi-fi from Dixons.

Great Universal Stores and Interflora have also signed up.

The system is Compuserve's UK shopping Centre, an electronic shopping centre which allows shoppers to go on a spree without leaving their desk.

Compuserve, which has 100,000 subscribers in the UK, says it hopes to sign up a further 15 retailers this year. The launch comes in the same week as Sainsbury's began a scheme to sell wine on the Internet.

WH Smith has placed 250 books on the system but hopes to extend the offer to its entire 1500 range soon.

So far the range is restricted to "popular" titles such as Edwina Currie's A Parliamentary Affair and Vikram Seth's An Unsuitable Boy. Delivery costs £1.95 per order and takes around three to four days.

WH Smith's Allan Mitchell says: "It's really just another method of selling. It's a niche but the really exciting thing is that it will enable us to find out more about it;'s customers. WH Smith is also taking part in BT's pilot scheme in East Anglia this year that will offer books music and video down the telephone line.

Virgin, which is offering 500 music video and computer games on the system, says the system is a way of learning about the new technology.

Great Universal Stores, the mail order group, has compiled a collection of its sports wear ranges into a PC Sports "shop." Paul Harris, GUS chief executive of home shopping, says "We can and will create a number of niche "shops" or catalogues and offer them in this method. Home shopping is a seed that is going to grow."

GUS has an advantage over the other retailers on the Compuserve system in that it already has a sophisticated delivery network. WH Smith will either pop its books in the post or hire a courier.

One key difference between the Internet and Compuserve is the security of financial transactions. On the Internet, only users with the most recent software can be sure that their credit card details are not being hacked from the system.

Compuserve, which has been operating for 10 years in the United States, has well-established security systems and the company is also working on an encryption service to make it safer

One problem for retailers is that is difficult for them to differentiate themselves from each other. With no location advantage or flashy in-store designs, competitive advantage may only be secured on the basis of price and the efficiency of the delivery system.

A Tesco spokesman said: "At the moment we are the only retailer offering wine on the Compuserve system so it is not a problem. When we get more commotion we will have to look at ways to address it."

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