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Amazon Tests Catalog Sales

Internet retail giant Amazon.com, which makes no secret of the fact that it wants to be able to sell anything to anyone, this week quietly launched a beta test of sales from third-party print catalog marketers.

The Seattle-based company says on its site that "our new mail-order catalog service, which allows you to explore and place orders from thousands of the most popular catalogs, happens to be in the beta stage.

"We're testing different features and gathering input from those who use it so that we can make sure it's the best service it can possibly be."

The move furthers Amazon's efforts to widen the merchandise selection available on the site - efforts that include the possibility of new partner deals as well as plans for the company's Marketplace and Services units that would let sellers of used merchandise list more goods in more categories.

In fact, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been quoted as saying he wants people "to be able to find anything they are looking for." Adding thousands if not millions of items from print catalogs would certainly advance that strategy.

Amazon says on the site that "even though this service is in the beta stage, everything works, so you can start placing phone orders from the catalogs now."

Literally thousands of catalogs are available, including catalogs in eight new categories, Amazon spokesman Patty Smith told InternetNews.com. The new categories are: Arts and Hobbies, Car Parts and accessories, Lifestyle and Gifts, Home Furnishings, Pet Toys and supplies, Industrial Supplies, Medical Supplies and Scientific Supplies.

Other sites, of course, including Google Catalogs, are experimenting with something similar, using optical character reading technology.

Among the returns for a search from the main page on the word "skirts," for example was a link that reads: "See 'skirts' on Page 41 of Williamsburg Catalog - Spring 2002 mail-order catalog."

Clicking on the link takes you directly to an online version of the catalog page, complete with color pictures. There's even a message that says "We found the term "skirt" on 6 pages in this catalog" and it lets you click on any of them. The Williams-Sonoma catalog was also featured.

"For your convenience, we offer this free service featuring thousands of the most popular mail-order catalogs," the site says. Those who want to order are urged to call the cataloger directly via an 800 number.

Surprisingly, Amazon's Smith said the company is not getting a little piece of each catalog sale initiated from the Web site. "We'll get our money to the extent that people come to Amazon to find anything they want to buy ... they may find other things ... we think that will benefit the retail side of our business," Smith said. "We think that increasing selection will further our aims."

Restaurant menus are also being offered at Amazon these days, with trial operations launched for Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Smith said customers can use the free service to look at menus, read or write reviews just the way they can with books or music, get phone numbers and make reservations, find directions, etc.

Neither catalogers nor restaurant operators are being charged for the additional exposure, and the company is encouraging both to get on board.

Amazon, of course, is couching it all in friendly, small-town language like this:

"It used to be, if you couldn't find what you were looking for in your friendly neighborhood store, they'd be more than happy to let you know where you could find it -- even if that meant pointing you to another store. Amazon.com is keeping that tradition alive by adding thousands of the most popular mail-order catalogs to our site. If we don't sell the product you're looking for, we'll gladly point you to a cataloger who does!"

But if the consumer runs into problems, Amazon is quick to say "don't call us, call them:"

"Please note that any order you place with a mail-order catalog will be shipped to you from them, not from Amazon.com. If you have any questions about such an order, please contact the cataloger."

Of course, Amazon's new offering also places it into competition with a host of other e-commerce plays, such as CatalogCity.com, which aggregates retailers' off-line catalogs for a cut of the sales revenue, and has distribution partnerships with America Online, Yahoo! and other portals.

Although Amazon has a $5 million stock investment in the company that operates CatalogCity.com, the new catalog initiative is a separate operation, Smith said.