December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Though it hits bumps on shipping fees, Galaxymaps charts a mostly smooth course

Lost your way? Galaxymaps.com has the goods to put you on the right path.

Wandering into this Web site is like finding an off-the-beaten-path specialty shop. You never knew it existed but wonder how you’ve lived without it. With more than 15 categories and 8,500 map-related items, Galaxymaps has something for everyone-from armchair travelers to globetrotters. Its inventory includes road maps, wall maps, custom maps, atlases, antique reproductions, even a globe that opens up to reveal a mini-bar.

But like many small shops packed to the rafters, Galaxymaps is a labor of love, not the product of marketing research or graphic designers. It is busy, dark, and loaded-the kind of site where you can accidentally click on the wrong button. At least you don’t have to worry about knocking over anything.

Galaxymaps is the Web branch of A Galaxy of Maps, a bricks-and-mortar retailer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An early comer to the Internet, the site launched in 1996.

Though crowded, its home page neatly lays out the scale and variety of inventory. Navigation is easy. If you’re a Rand McNally fan, you can view product listings by manufacturer. The site also organizes its inventory by category.

Galaxymaps is primarily the work of Mort Layton, father of the original owner of the store and Webmaster since the site debuted. Layton had retired from video production in 1995 when his son asked him to get involved with Internet sales. Ever since, Layton has devoted himself to the task, even carrying a laptop with him when he travels so that he can keep tabs on the site.

Quick clicks

With browser software becoming increasingly sophisticated and computers increasingly fast, Web design has become more important, says Layton: “You have to grow with it.” Yet the most important element in a site like Galaxymaps is time. “Customers want to find things quickly,” he says, explaining why the entire inventory is referenced on the home page.

I was in the market for an atlas, having just completed a road trip using a woefully out-of-date book from the 1980s. At Galaxymaps, I found more than a dozen to evaluate-far more than I’d expect to find in a typical bookstore. Each atlas entry had at least one picture, along with a list of key features, number of pages and price. Though I would prefer a hands-on inspection, the pictures and extensive product description were enough to help me make a decision. I opted for a spiral bound National Geographic product that retails for $16.95.

The shopping cart was simple and straightforward. But Galaxymaps doesn’t offer the deep discounts that many bookstores do. Nor does the site specify the shipping charge. Instead, it simply says that purchases are shipped by UPS ground, with the fee added to the final charge.

A pretty penny

After submitting my order, I received a confirming e-mail almost immediately. In it, I was reminded that my charge of $16.95 was subject to shipping fees. The e-mail explained that it’s difficult to estimate shipping costs for some goods, hence the unusual policy of revising the total once the product is shipped.

My atlas arrived in four days, but with no word about the total. Two weeks later, I called to check on the shipping fee, which turned out to be $7.50-the highest I’ve seen. Amazon.com, for instance, would have charged around $4 for a comparable order.

Galaxymaps owner Gil D’Amore, who bought the store and Web site in March, says the higher shipping charges stem from the exotic nature of much of his inventory and his largely business clientele. Because of this, merchandise is shipped via UPS, which requires a signature upon delivery, instead of U.S. Postal Service Priority mail, which does not. UPS fees tend to run higher for the same package.

With about 1.7 million visitors a month, Galaxymaps rang up more than $350,000 in sales in 1998, a figure D’Amore expects to double this year. Though the bulk of business comes from the U.S. and Canada, foreign orders are becoming more significant, especially from Europe, says D’Amore. In the past year Japan, Taiwan, China and other Pacific Rim countries have also grown as a percentage of total sales on the site.

The site offers several ways to get in touch with the company. A toll-free phone number is prominently displayed, and both the sales department and the Webmaster invite questions about custom products or the site itself. D’Amore says he reads every e-mail received by the sales department, a practice he intends to continue even as sales grow.

One recent e-mail from the U.S. Coast Guard requested a price quote for a custom made magnetic map of the Gulf of Mexico for tracking boat positions and planning rescues.

High-revenue orders like that one are important to the site’s profitability. So are antique maps, which are popular items bringing customers back.

Repeat business is a priority for D’Amore. He’s testing out permission-based marketing, offering promotions via e-mail for customers who put their names on the list along with their favorite categories.

The hefty shipping fees and lack of discounts may lead some customers to take a detour. But Galaxymaps’ vast inventory, like curiosities you can discover in a dusty antique shop on a rainy afternoon, should keep specialty shoppers coming back.

Lavonne Kuykendall is associate editor of Faulkner & Gray’s Card Marketing Magazine.

www.galaxymaps.com

- Time to load home page: 23 seconds

- Time to move between pages: 5 seconds

- Total clicks to merchandise: 2 clicks

- Notable site features: A manufacturer’s directory. If you’re a Rand McNally or National Geographic fan, you can cut to the chase.

- Ease of contacting company: Great. Both the sales department and the Webmaster offer e-mail links, plus the company’s 800 number is plastered all over the site. There’s even a map to its bricks-and-mortar store in Fort Lauderdale.

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