SELLING RETAIL PRODUCTS on the Internet is a phenomenon that even Wall Street's top analysts can't put their fingers on. Some industries, such as book retailers, have thrived on the ever-expanding information superhighway, while others, such as pet suppliers, have gone belly-up.

So what does this mean to farrier suppliers who want to make their wares readily available via the Web? Are farriers ready to consistently buy supplies through a computer?

While it's too early in the game to give cut-and-dry answers to the buying patterns of farriers worldwide, there are signs that indicate there may be a place for selling everyday farrier products online.

Infancy Stages Selling products through the Internet is in its early stages and has been an evolutionary process. Some of the most successful farrier supply companies have only been offering products online for 2 or 3 years.

Many farrier suppliers first launched Web sites as a way to gain exposure for their business as well as to give location and contact information to potential customers. But as more and more folks became computer savvy and home computers became commonplace, farrier supply companies began offering products in a whole new way.

"We've offered farrier supplies online for about 2 years. At first, it didn't prove to be very successful," says Amy Pieh, vice president of Centaur Forge in Burlington, Wis. "For one thing, there was a security firewall that we had in place that prevented Internet search engines from finding us. But since we joined the Farrier Resource Center, we've seen steady growth globally. Being a part of their site has enabled us to keep over 10,000 products available online, something that we'd never be able to do on our own.

"We had over 75,000 visitors to our online shopping site in the first 3 months."

Comfortable With Change?
Getting some farriers to try a new way of purchasing supplies isn't the easiest thing to do. Many are comfortable buying products the same way they always have and are hesitant to buy something electronically. Rick Burten, an American Farriers Association Certified Journeyman Farrier from Champaign, Ill., echoes the sentiments of many farriers when it comes to buying things online.

"While I often browse the online farrier catalogues, I have never purchased supplies online," he says. "I'm still leery of giving my credit card number out over the Internet, even though I know that secured sites are probably safe.

"Just some personal paranoia on my part."

Dale Peterson, a farrier from Bellevue, Wash., uses the Internet as a reference tool, but still prefers human contact when he spends his money.

"I'm always looking online at farrier supply sites and looking at prices," Peterson says. "But I need to see products and ask questions with a real person before I buy the goods."

Other farriers remain comfortable with the relationship that they've built over the years with their current supplier. "I've never bought supplies online. I've used my primary supplier for about 20 years and have been comfortable with their service and prices," says David Clouse, an AFA Certified Journeyman Farrier from Liberty Hill, Texas, though he readily admits to utilizing the Web as a resource. "I frequently look at other company Web sites to compare prices and get information on new products, but I've always come back to my original supplier."

"Online buying hasn't totally caught on with farriers yet," says Susan Hight, general manager of The Horseshoe Barn of Sacramento, Calif. "However, the number of farriers using e-mail continues to grow."

Burten adds that location plays a factor in his decision to purchase supplies in person. "I have the luxury of having two of the finest supply houses right in my state, one of which I go to on a regular basis on my way to one of my shoeing clients," he says.

Online Buying Advantages
Since the whole concept behind setting up farrier products online was to make purchasing products easier for the buyer, how is it working in that regard?

"I buy a lot of supplies from supply houses through Web sites," says Jim Turnage, a farrier from Palestine, Texas. "It's a great way to shop since I get home late in the evening and can sit down and search the Internet for bargains."

"The store is always open online," says Hight. "Because our entire catalog is online, the prices are continually updated, whereas our printed catalog is updated only twice a year."

Farrier Jerry Henry of Peachtree City, Ga., loves the efficiency of buying online. "I buy all my shoes, nails, epoxies and other small tools online through Georgia Farrier Supply and it's a really smooth process," he says. "I send in an e-mail, tell them what I want and it arrives either the next day or the second day, depending on the time of day when I order my supplies.

"I can order any time, day or night. I can order when I think about something I need and don't have to remember the next day that I need to put in the order.

"I've developed a great relationship with all the people at Georgia Farrier Supply. I cherish the loyalty of my customers and try to pass that loyalty along to others when they have proven they deserve the same."

Efficient, Accurate Records One of the most important factors in any business transaction is that orders are accurate. Many suppliers and farriers have found that ordering online has produced a greater degree of accountability for suppliers.

"E-mail orders allow our customers to have written records of their purchase," says Bob Schantz of Spanish Lake Blacksmith Shop in Foristell, Mo. "Written orders always reduce errors and depending upon where a farrier lives, he or she can get their order within a day or two."

Pieh agrees that online orders improve her company's efficiency. "Our customers receive an e-mail order confirmation after they place an order with us," she says. "Ordering online alleviates any possible miscommunication that can come up with a person who's taking an order over the phone."

Pieh also maintains that the advent of online shopping has made her company more productive. "Our phones ring less, and we get much more office work done around here," she says.

Henry claims that ordering online saves considerable telephone aggravation. "It saves me time because I don't have to be put on hold when I'm phoning in an order," he says. "It allows me extra time to run my business and meet my customer's needs."

Comparative Shopping
The birth of online shopping has allowed farriers to comparison shop as never before. "Comparing prices online is a good way to justify whether it's cheaper to buy a certain product online, through mail order or direct from my farrier supply house," says Ed Gladden, a farrier from Waynesville, N.C. "It gives farriers a greater degree of flexibility to our shopping."

Heidi Mello, a farrier from Bermuda, utilizes a wide variety of online information. "I've ordered my supplies online numerous times and would say that I've had a good look at almost every farrier-related Web site that's out there. I wish there were more stores online. "Being in Bermuda, 800 numbers aren't toll-free, so ordering online saves me money."

"I just like to browse the net and find out what's new," says farrier Roger Wilkinson of Richfield, Idaho.

Big Ticket Items
It isn't just smaller items like nails, rasps, creasers or hammers that are sold online. As farriers have gotten accustomed to buying supplies online, the size and dollar value of their purchases have increased.

"We've sold orders worth as much as $8,000 to $10,000, says Pieh. "Farriers are using the Internet to buy forges, anvils, air hammers, you name it.

"We've even sold some power hammers online which cost $10,000 to $20,000. With items like that we need to talk to the customer first to find out their specific needs, but they've been introduced to the product online and have clicked that they would like more information."

Time-Tested Ways
Not every company is ready to jump on board with online shopping. Wayne Brockney, vice president/general manager of Meader Supply Corp. in Rochester, N.H., says that while his company uses computer technology to run his operation as efficiently as possible, they've made a conscious decision to stay with a time-tested system that has worked well in the past for customers.

"It's much easier for farriers to call our 800 toll-free number, give us an order and let us pack it and ship it immediately," says Brockney. "We feel this is the best way to service our customers.

"There are questions that may come up during conversations with our customers such as: Fronts or hinds? Clipped or unclipped? Box of 250 or 500?

"Farriers in our area are very busy and their time is important. For now, our company can best meet their needs and process an order by telephone much more quickly."

What The Future Holds
While the Internet remains a hard sell to some farriers and suppliers, others swear by its convenience and simplicity. So what does this mean for the future of online farrier supplies?

"The shift toward buying and selling online is inevitable," says Hight. "Once farriers realize the time-saving advantages of e-mail ordering, as well as seeing that their orders are shipped correctly, online ordering will be the norm and not the exception."

"We would never give up on our online shopping venue," says Pieh. "We hope that as the Internet grows, some day we'll be able to reduce the number of catalog mailings we do each year. Printing and mailing catalogs are very costly to our company."

More Options Than Ever
The future is now according to Henry. "In this day and age, anyone who's not on board with the Internet and using all the tools at their disposal will be left out in the cold, says the Georgia farrier. "This is such a time-saving device that it shouldn't be overlooked.

"One thing every farrier needs more of is time and shopping online will give you more time to devote to your other interests."

While it seems that the best way for a farrier to purchase supplies depends on the needs of each individual farrier, one thing is clear - the advent of online shopping, has given some farriers a new shopping option; one that more and more of them will be considering as time goes on.

Reprinted with permission of American Farriers Journal.