NEW YORK -- As expectations for home shopping platforms rise and fall faster than hemlines, some companies have come to the conclusion that low tech, rather than high tech, is really the cutting edge.Interactive broadband television, once the grail, has lately come under fire for being overly hyped and unavailable until at least the distant future.Online services such as Prodigy, once maligned for their lackluster graphics, are now being embraced as a mode of interactive shopping that consumers can use now with little trouble.QVC is developing an online shopping service, Q Online, for launch in 1995. The company sees online technology improving and envisions a format that looks more like a magazine or catalog than a typical computer screen.HSN Products, a subsidiary of Home Shopping Network, has signed a letter of intent with Prodigy to develop an online shopping service by fall that will offer products ranging from housewares to fashion and jewelry.Jeff Gentry, president of HSN Products, said the shopping service will have color photos of products and a system whereby people can communicate with show hosts and celebrities by typing messages back and forth.The company intends to offer interactive shopping through all the online services and Internet, a conglomerate of networks. In addition to the computer and television, the telephone is another potential shopping platform.U.S. Order, based in Herndon, Va., has been testing its ScanFone, a "smart phone," in partnership with Bell Atlantic, Ameritech and Sprint in Washington, Detroit and Philadelphia, respectively.ScanFone works like this: U.S. Order asked 20 catalogers to put bar codes in their catalogs, representing the price of each item. Customers use a scanning wand connected to the phone to order products.PhonePlus, launching this fall, is the next generation of a smart phone. It replaces the scanning wand with a computer keyboard -- attached to the phone. It has a photo screen, so users can see what they've typed, and a credit card reader so consumers can swipe their credit card through for payments.PhonePlus has a universal catalog ordering system, which means a consumer can pick up any catalog and type in an order, said Scott Corzine, vice president of market development for U.S. Order. The order goes to Litle & Co., which processes it for the catalog company.Corzine said that the company, for a limited time, will give customers $2 every time they order through the smart phone. The company charges customers about $12 a month to use the phone.Corzine said that eventually, merchants will be able to send consumers messages via the phone.But financial transactions are where the big money is. Corzine said that over $100 million in bill payment transactions have passed through the system. By comparison, only 4,500 catalog orders -- the orders averaged $62 -- were placed last year."Shopping won't be a profit center, but its a nice piece of icing," he said.--S.E.
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