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Tom's of Maine and beyond -- Web commerce seen as a natural move

With knowledge sharing a tenet of its mission statement, Tom's of Maine is the country's leading manufacturer of all-natural personal care products such as toothpaste, soap and mouthwash. Tom's has built its business on a commitment to being environmentally sensitive and socially responsible.

What started in 1970 as a niche is now a full line of natural products distributed in more than 30,000 health food stores and food and drug outlets. The products command a price premium of as much as 50%, yet by 1995 the privately held company's sales were $20 million.

Like many retailers, Tom's is facing the graduation of its Web site from a source of corporate information to an interactive online ordering system. Tom's hopes to make that migration without losing personal contact with its market. Further, the company strives to adopt technology while remaining true to its environmental sensitivity.

"In a general sense, a tangible benefit of IT is that it enables us to maintain a simultaneous 24-hour dialogue with both our retail partners and our consumers," said Kathleen Taggersell, a communications manager with Tom's.

Asked to identify the key benefit of Tom's Web site thus far, Taggersell said, "It's been the ability to build relationships, to communicate with our consumers on a one-to-one basis and provide information about Tom's products and mission on demand."

While Tom's Web site currently offers such basics as company history and product descriptions, in the not-too-distant future, the company plans to expand the site to allow consumers to purchase products. Likewise, the retailer expects to broaden its electronic communication, which has been mostly e-mail for internal communication or receiving consumer comments.

"We have an in-house consumer research department, and we have recently used our site as a tool to find out more about our users' likes and dislikes," Taggersell said. "On our home page, for example, we periodically post a link to a survey that consumers can respond to if they wish. We use this input in a number of ways, including product development.

"A key tenet of the mission statement of Tom's of Maine is to build relationships with our customers that extend beyond product use to include full and honest dialogue, responsiveness to feedback and the exchange of information about products and issues."

Tom's desire to maintain personal contact with its customers has been paramount while it strengthens its Web communication.

"One of the many ways we can achieve customer dialogue is through the use of technology, the most notable being our current Web site," Taggersell explained. "We use our Web site as a key educational tool for both our business partners and our consumers. We also receive questions from our consumers via e-mail, and as a result we can update our Q&A section to reflect an increasing number of queries about a particular subject."According to Chris Jeffers, the network administrator at Tom's, the network relies on Intel and Cisco components across a fibre-switched 100-Mb Ethernet network. For its back-office systems, Tom's has adopted technology to ease the logistics burden of its growth. "There are approximately 100 users of Tom's wide area network," Jeffers said, "three office/production sites in Kennebunk, Maine, one in Vermont and 20 remote sales users throughout the country."

"Tom's is very dependent on EDI (electronic data interchange) for receiving orders and sending acknowledgments," said Jeffers. "Raw material levels are monitored by PC-based systems, and our suppliers are electronically notified to deliver without human intervention. The majority of orders are processed this way."

At Tom's of Maine, the move toward e-commerce is clearly customer-driven. While the current distribution model remains successful, the company has learned to adapt to changing business models.

"It is important to us to provide the highest level of customer service, and we aim to serve our customers wherever they might shop--the local drug store, health food store, grocery store and now, online," Taggersell said. "That's why we're in the process of developing an e-commerce site--to reach our consumer who prefers to shop in the comfort of home."

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