January 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

When hot sneakers fly off the shelves, Nike’s retailers go to Nike.net

For some small merchants, the web is opening up a new way to check upcoming styles and place orders without having to leave their store’s desktop computer.

For small retailers of fashion-driven products, one of the toughest challenges is finding the time to keep up with changing styles and to make sure stores are stocked with what’s hot. That can be especially true for merchants dealing in running shoes and other types of sports footwear and related apparel and accessories, because styles as well as sporting seasons are always changing.

But for some small merchants, the web is opening up a new way to check upcoming styles and place orders without having to leave their store’s desktop computer.

City Sports, a 10-store sporting goods chain based in Wilmington, Mass., is using a new Nike Inc. business-to-business web site, Nike.net, to keep shelves stocked with the hottest selling items. “Four out of our top five shoes last week were Nike, and every one of them is there because of our ability to fill them through Nike.net,” a City Sports spokesman says.

City Sports is one of about 2,000 small retailers that have begun using Nike.net to check product availability and place and manage orders, says Lee Walker, Nike’s U.S. b2b marketing manager. “We’re trying to automate transactions that Nike retailers do day in and day out,” he says. Nike.net is also being used by another 500 specialty retailers that sell only one Nike product line, such as footwear for a particular sport.

Small retailers also find Nike.net a useful tool for keeping up-to-date on Nike product and marketing information. “I look forward to using Nike.net for information ranging from stock availability to getting general news from Nike,” says a spokesman for GoJo Sports, which operates two stores in Greeley, Colo. Walker adds that small retailers who typically don’t travel to trade shows or other Nike corporate events will use Nike.net to view online video presentations of new products.

The approximately 2,500 small retailers now using Nike.net make up about half the number of small retailers that sell Nike products. Nike expects to eventually have all of them using Nike.net. Although some of the smallest retailers may not even have a computer in their stores, Nike is working with Hewlett-Packard Co. to offer a special preconfigured $999 computer package to enable them to access Nike.net.

Although Nike.net is currently used primarily for checking product availability and order management, it will eventually also be used to process returns and electronic payment of invoices, Walker says. “It will be a self-fulfilled tool all to itself,” he says.

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