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E-commerce sites making moves offline

Many online retailers are discovering that moves into the 'real world' are helping their businesses

Since the widespread adoption of shopping services such as lastminute.com and Amazon.com you could be forgiven for thinking the 'catalogue' was a ghost from a bygone age, but more and more e-tailers are revisiting the paper-based past of the original home-shopping pioneers.

Even eBay, a Web site which makes full use of the capability for real-time bidding online, has ventured down the catalogue route. The company last week sent out its very first 32-page glossy brochure including a selection of items, representative of those currently on sale.

And with Christmas around the corner it is likely consumers will see a big push -- both online and offline -- by e-commerce sites looking to grow their share of the festive cash.

One pioneering e-commerce site based in London -- gadget site Firebox.com -- has long believed in the complementary benefits of catalogues to its online channel.

Charlie Morgan, a spokeswoman for Firebox.com, told ZDNet UK sister site silicon.com it was in part a show of strength -- a message to consumers and rivals that the company was serious about growing its brand and creating a mainstream business for shoppers online and offline.

"In a market place that was fast becoming cluttered there was a strong need to both expand the customer base and ensure that Firebox itself grew as a brand," said Morgan.

"By building in a programme of catalogue drops, Firebox aimed to recruit many new customers who had not thought of the internet as a purchasing medium, increase turnover and of course grow the brand."

Last Christmas Firebox.com sent out more than one million catalogues, resulting in 10,000 new customers which the company regards as an impressive return, bearing in mind "several hundred thousand" catalogues were sent to already-existing customers.

During a three-month promotion the catalogues drove more than £600,000 worth of sales.

Morgan added that such an overwhelming affirmation of the size of the potential offline market has caused the company to consider further forays into the 'real world'.

"The success of the online and catalogue channels has prompted Firebox to explore a move onto the high street," she said.

However, the company will never move too far from its Web roots, acknowledging the fact other channels will only ever be complementary.

"The way the catalogue is designed really encourages people to go back online," said Morgan, adding that the familiar format of a catalogue can act as a hand-holding guide to shopping online -- especially at a time of year when less tech-savvy older relatives are faced with the task of gadget-shopping for sons, daughters, nephews and nieces.

"I don't know if we'll still be doing it in 10 years, but for now it is proving very successful," added Morgan.

A report out yesterday from Continental Research claims 10.1 million UK adults will shop online this Christmas, generating around £1.8bn in revenue. This is up from the £1.3bn generated last year by 7.3 million shoppers.

A spokesman for Continental Research believes that while online has grown its market share it still hasn't tempted shoppers away from the high street altogether -- perhaps further evidence of why e-commerce sites now need to make concerted forays into the physical marketplace with additions to their offering such as catalogues.