NEW YORK -- Beauty is taking its first, unsure steps into cyberspace.
Long after the apparel and accessories industries went on line with computerized Quick Response inventory management systems, the cosmetics industry is in the initial stages of plugging in.
Two years ago, the talk was about manufacturers putting bar codes on their packaging, allowing outgoing products to be scanned at the checkout counter and generating sell-through data for the computers that keep tabs on inventory and automatically fire off orders to manufacturers for replenishment.
Now the discussion for many companies has progressed to the testing stage. A number of firms have either begun testing new systems with their department store partners or are contemplating the first hookup.
Some firms that produce cosmetics for the mass market have a head start on prestige manufacturers, because discounters like Wal-Mart and drugstore chains have been tracking inventory for years.
The heart of the computer network, called Electronic Data Interchange, is seen by many industry executives as the key to the future. It is valued not only for the mundane benefits of inventory management and reorder generation, but for the flow of precise sales information, helping marketers make more accurate sales forecasts.
"There is no question that technology is going to change the way that we operate,"said Fred Langhammer, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Estee Lauder Cos. He said the computer feedback will allow manufacturers to be "smarter and more efficient," not only in knowing what to sell to the stores, but what quantities to produce in factories.
Langhammer described Lauder's progress as in the "starting phase of an orderly implementation plan" that he estimates will take three years. The Lauder organization is hooked up to select groups of doors within the major department store chains.
The firm's electronic effort has been spearheaded by John Corrigan, senior vice president of global information services.
Dan Brestle, president of the Clinique division of Lauder, noted, "The key is having the right merchandise in the right store at a time when the customer is there." "If anybody wants to stay in business, they have to be on EDI," said Alfonso Lopez, president of Tsumura International, based in Secaucus, N.J.
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