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The Business Community & Technology

Computers Inhabit Westfield

By Jeanne Whitney

Specially Written for This Is Westfield

Technology, in the form of computers, has clearly entered, if not invaded, the Westfield business community. But how has it changed the marketplace? The answer in part depends on the extent to which a business uses the new technology. In Westfield alone, more than 180 local businesses reside on the Internet in a directory service created last year especially for Westfield by the Quintillion Division of AT&T Research (www.quintillion.com/westfield).

In conjunction with that, last December, the local weekly newspaper, The Westfield Leader, launched an Internet edition (www.quintillion.com/leader) and formed The Downtown Technology Club in Westfield. The Club provides Internet classes and computer workshops several nights a week..

The Town of Westfield municipal offices have an Internet Site (www.westfield-nj.com) spurred by Johnathan Klausner.

Independent webmaster Darryl Walker specializes in creating custom websites (www.westfieldnj.com) for area businesses. Also, Mr. Walker is the Sales Representative for Comcast in Westfield (which is marketing high speed cable access to the Internet).

The Westfield Area Chamber of Commerce maintains a site and database of members. Executive Director Katherine L. Broihier said, "The Chamber website has definitely been the biggest change for our members this year."

In other words, Westfield businesses are surely riding the technology wave, with Village Curtains owner Karen Shupper saying, "Apparently, people really do surf the net."

Mrs. Shupper said she gets inquiries on fabrics from as far away as India and Japan while providing e-mail replies to local customers, as well. She also puts product photos on the store's website.

The Leader Store owner, Joseph Spector, who began using computers for business in the early 1980s, said "I don't think you can do without them (computers) today."

He now has a full-time employee handling the computer technology end of the business. Mr. Spector said suppliers send him product catalogs on CD-ROM discs that can be viewed on his computer. Price lists and stock numbers for inventory can be entered directly into his computer system with the CD-ROM discs. That means no keyboarding long lists of numbers by hand.

Mr. Spector said he sees a real potential for reaching new kinds of markets through the store's Internet website. He also sees a huge potential for growth in mail order business for retail businesses like his own. On the downside, Mr. Spector said he sees the potential for manufacturers to reach customers via the Internet and bypassing the retail business altogether.

At the Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Broihier said computer technology, such as desktop publishing, has put valuable marketing tools like direct mail flyers and brochures within the reach of member businesses and the Chamber itself. She said she feels an Internet website has generated new membership for the Chamber.

Mr. Spector, who is also Chairman of Westfield's Special Improvement District (SID) board, said he sees a day when the Westfield community will be marketed directly through the Internet to potential businesses.

Local investment and development firms say e-mail has become an acceptable way to communicate with clients all over the United States. Using computers and faxes has quickened the pace of business decisions as well, they say. At least one local Realtor is beginning to offer houses for sale on an Internet website despite a general industry fear of losing the exclusivity of their listings by posting them on the Internet. However, one advantage is that computer savvy buyers from out-of-town can survey the housing market in advance.

Internet and e-mail consultant (www.elbnet.com), Peter Billson, said he has developed numerous Internet websites and office communication systems. He has created business websites for The Westfield Leader advertisers, Atlanta Symphony Associates, Realtors, car dealers, building supply houses and professional companies.

According to Horace Corbin, Publisher of TheLeader and The Times of Scotch Plains and Fanwood, the newspaper's Internet website is an excellent marketing tool for all the newspapers' advertisers because it is one more way to reach an expanded audience. Mr. Corbin said he has created "an umbrella of services" for advertisers.

Gold and Silver Plan advertisers can communicate with customers through the Internet advertisements by e-mail, telephony, Internet Fax and audio messages - and even take orders. Mr. Billson, in working with Mr. Corbin, said he sees the day when residents can handle most of their weekend errands through the computer (banking, ordering groceries, clothes, flowers, gifts and more) and then make reservations for a night out-on-the-town (including movie tickets, dinner and even a request for a particular wine, through the Internet).

"We're truly building an important service for the town," Mr. Billson said.

The Internet, like computers, has been around longer than many of us realize. The Internet as we know it arose from a network created in the 1960s for the United States Department of Defense to communicate with government contractors working at large universities. CompuServe started the first commercial online service. Eleven years ago, the National Science Foundation created a network that quickly replaced the older Defense Department system. In 1991, a bill sponsored by then United States Senator Albert Gore, now Vice President, allowed businesses to purchase part of the network for commercial use. This has led to mass commercialization and public use of the Internet today.

Some local firms say computer technology has virtually eliminated the need for secretaries since employees can print their own letters, track appointments, access files about customers in the computer, locate a co-worker who is out of the office through a calendar and e-mail. Nearing the concept of a "virtual office" is the out-of-town employee who uses a laptop computer to hook into the company computer network and it's business as usual.

Working with The Leader through the Quintillion Division of AT&T, researcher Karrie Hanson said she looks forward to the day when using community directories on the computer at home is as common as checking the refrigerator door for notes, schedules and activities.

"Being part of a network like that can create a sense of community," Mrs. Hanson said. "My parents remember when going into town on Saturday was the way to find out what was going on. I want this project (Next Stop Westfield) to create that sense of community for people."

The AT&T/Leader pilot project offers photos, menus, and coupons. It even talks to you. It can be found on the Internet at www.quintillion.com/westfield.

AT&T seeks to tailor the directory to merchants and residents needs. Merchants will soon be able to update their own pages in the Internet directory daily by typing a few commands into their computer. A community calendar for the Westfield Directory is planned. AT&T wants to offer these same services developed for Westfield to other communities around the country within the next several years.

Residents and Merchants can use the computers and Internet access provided at The Westfield Leader’s office and The Downtown Technology Club on Elm Street. Some day, accessing a computer site may be like making a call from a public telephone on the street corner.

Remembering that the Internet is only one part of how computers are used in the business community, it nonetheless appears to be one of the fastest growing uses among those who use computers. Some merchants have indicated there is a certain prestige or panache in being able to list a website address on a business card and advertisement or in telling customers they are "on the net." Other businesses said the use of computers has added work as well as down time while learning the medium; but that in the long run, the computer organizes a lot of data to provide a "big picture" of whether or not business is booming.

Ever-vigilant businessman Mr. Spector reminds the business community that no matter how efficient computer technology is, "The computer alone doesn't sell the merchandise." His advice: "Come up with a list of what your business needs are and get software that does what you want. A computer doesn't tell you how to use the information it gives you. You still need marketing. You need ‘the touch.’"

According to Mr. Corbin, "Technology is being applied to business communications in ways that provide dynamic environments for exchanging ideas, for stimulating creativity and for broadening views; it’s a multi-dimensional dialogue for businessmen and customers. As the learning curve for applying technology is overcome, exciting and worthwhile advances will be commonplace".

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader.
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10/25/97.

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