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Softsel: 'a different customer base.'

For most of its nine-year history, softsel (1988 revenues: $465 million) held a secure position among software distributors as the market's volume leader. But last year the rules of the game changed drastically: two upstarts, Ingram and Micro D, consummated a merger that produced a new distribution colossus with annualized revenues of almost a billion dollars.

That merger now has begun to raise tough questions among developers and publishers about Softsel's continuing role in the marketplace. Has Ingram/Micro D preempted most of the distribution services and market coverage that Softsel used to provide? We posed this question recently to Softsel's marketing vice president, Robin Citron, and to Allan Schroeder, director of new product acquisitions. Their answers:

Are there any dealers you reach who aren't already part of Ingram/Micro D's distribution network?

"We have a very different customer base," Citron told us. "We just did a survey of our customers, and we found that a big number--64%--are nonstorefront VARs." Softsel also serves large chains and independents aggressively, citron said, but her company is determined to hang on to "the lion's share" of the VAR market by offering such services as tech support and same-day shipping on orders received as late as 5:00 pm.

What else gives you an edge -- in the market?

"We've always had Softeach, which is an amazing way for our vendors to reach 10,000 dealers a year for just $45,000," said Citron. "And we're probably a little more sophisticated about our product offerings. We have four special divisions--Connectivity, Macintosh, Education, and Unix--that each have their own sales, marketing, and technical support staffs."

Softsel chairman Bob Leff recently said Softsel "lives and dies by new products." How actively do you pursue acquisitions?

"Our sales people turn in weekly reports on all the requests they've gotten for products we don't have," said Schroeder, "and we constantly watch trade shows and the press to see what's going on. we probably spend some in-depth time looking at 500-1,000 products a year, and we'll

pick up maybe 70 new vendors out of that process."

What percentage of submissions don't make your first cut?

"We get about 4,000 submissions a year," Schroeder explained. "A lot are me-too products, or they don't fit in categories we sell. Another turnoff is packaging and documentation that isn't professional. We can't sell it if it isn't a self-sufficient product that tells its own story."

How fast can you move when you're evaluating a new title?

"I've seen a product at Comdex and signed a contract that night," Schroeder told us. But a more typical cycle, he said, takes about a month--"a couple of weeks of looking at the product and another two weeks to negotiate the contract before we place an initial stocking order."

Softsel still invites publishers to sign exclusive contracts. What's the benefit?

"What these vendors get is focus from our sales people," citron said. "We have about 30 of these relationships now, generally with newer products that, because of their complexity or newness, require an exclusive for mindshare. In some of these cases, we end up selling many hundreds of copies a week. in others, we're lucky to sell four a week."

Robin Citron, vice president of marketing; Allan Schroeder, director of new product acquisitions, Softsel Computer Products, 546 North Oak St., Inglewood, Calif. 90312; 213/412-1700.
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Date:Jul 15, 1989
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