E-comm summit attendees talk turkey

When South Port marketing manager David Prendergast put his name down to attend the E-Commerce Southland Summit he didn't expect he would end up presenting at it.

When South Port marketing manager David Prendergast put his name down to attend the E-Commerce Southland Summit he didn’t expect he would end up presenting at it.

The summit, held last Thursday in Invercargill, was organised by a group of business leaders in partnership with the Ministry of Economic Development.

After Prendergast signed up to attend he was asked to present. At first he and the port’s cargo and warehousing manager, Nigel Gear, were reluctant, because they haven’t actually finished their e-commerce implementation yet.

But it was the sort of story summit organisers wanted to hear. Speaking ahead of the summit last week Prendergast said: “It’s about a sharing of knowledge and maybe others will have some thinking about issues that you haven’t thought about.”

South Port is trialling an internet-based inventory tracking application called AIMS (Area Information Management System), developed by Christchurch firm Production Software (PSL). The system provides real-time information of customer stock levels in storage, tracks cargo movements from the customer site to storage and then the loading of cargo on to ships.

It means the port’s clients can not only monitor but also control their inventory and its movements. Prendergast says it brings better efficiency in stock control and better communication between the port and its customers.

Customers can access their data at any time over the internet, using a standard browser to enter their log-in and password. They can only access their own cargo information and a variety of standard reports online. They can also prepare additional ad hoc reports through an XML data exporting function.

The implementation has been challenging, says Prendergast, as unforeseen adjustments are made. The system is being trialled with a variety of customers and they want different specialised reports.

“We’re customising the system now to produce reports that are relevant to each particular customer. Some customers have quite standardised product lines, others have an array of product lines and hence are a lot more demanding on our system.”

Getting customers on board and up to speed with the new technology is another challenge. “You’ve got to sell them the advantages of using the system. We probably need to do a bit more work there ... They’re probably not IT-oriented. They may have email and communicate that way but getting them to be interactive with your system and working in that regard is also a challenge.”

The port also has to get staff on board. He says it can be frustrating for staff who are running double systems at present.

“You can’t just change over so they're having to do a little bit more work and they're coming up with some of the issues that we need to work on and customise.”

Prendergast would like to see implementation issues ironed out by the last quarter of the year. “It’s probably taken us a little longer than anticipated to get to this point … [but] it shows great potential and great promise.”

He says most ports and shipping companies are interacting electronically now and implementing such systems is a competitive issue. “You either get with it or get let behind.”

Further down the track Prendergast would like to see the system interact with the systems of shipping companies, agents and customers.

The AIMS development began in 1999-00. It followed on from a managed warehouse inventory system development in 1997-98).

Another southern firm presenting at the summit was Dart River Safaris, based in Glenorchy (about 48km from Queenstown). It runs an eco-jetboat operation on the Dart River.

Website supervisor Hugh Clark says his message to the summit was that even for small businesses, the opportunities online are large.

The site has taken online bookings for a few years, but only in August 2001 was it upgraded to bring in more online bookings, which saves the company money.

“In tourism you’ve always got the middle men – agents and companies in town – who do bookings and obviously require booking fees. The huge advantage with e-commerce and online reservations us is that we're skipping that entire process; therefore the full amount comes to us. [In addition] you haven’t had to send a brochure out so there’s no printing material, no marketing.”

On average there has been an increase in web bookings of 350% to 400% in each of the peak season months (October to March) this summer when compared with peak season months 2000-01. While Clark says numbers “aren’t huge” -- in October 2000 for example there were just four online bookings -- the cost of a trip begins at $145 so the bookings add up.

Clark says the website is the perfect medium for Dart River Safaris because free independent travellers make up a large chunk of its clientele and are more likely to browse the web than people on organised tours. However, even people the company would expect to use an agent – those booking upmarket options like a heritage trail at $299 each – have been booking online.

Hosted by Digiweb in Christchurch, the site has secure pages for credit card bookings and Clark says most visitors are willing to book online. For the 2% to 5% who aren’t, faxed bookings can be made.

The company also uses its online presence to conduct marketing surveys online with free – or discounted – trips offered to encourage people to take part.

Within the next month Clark would like to add a retail section to sell the company’s merchandise which includes fleeces, caps and oilskins. He would also like to display the photographs people have taken during their trips and provide an online ordering service for the shots.

“We’re trying to encourage them to come back to the website again once they’ve been on the trip. They might say ‘I wish I’d bought a cap while I was there’.”

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