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Armchair shopping: retailers face to face with options

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Until a few weeks ago, people in 204 homes in Coral Gables, Fla., could shop for tires from Sears, best sellers from the bookstore, and vacations from a travel agent - without leaving their living rooms.

These people were the subjects of a 15-month experiment by Viewdata Corporation, a subsidiary of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. Viewdata was testing consumer reaction to a ''nonstore marketing'' system. Using their television sets, telephones, and a keyboard, people could ask a variety of retailers what was available, how much it cost, and then place their orders.

Consumer reaction, says Viewdata president Morton Goldstrom, was ''very good.'' The company intends to have a permanent system installed in south Florida by 1983. A similar test involving shopping and banking is going on in Columbus, Ohio. And this week, the First Bank System of Minneapolis announced the beginning of a test of a ''videotex'' system in Fargo, N.D., based on a system being used in France. It will provide shopping, banking, and information retrieval services. Bookkeeping, financial planning, and commodity reports - particularly valuable in an agricultural area - will be available in 15 homes and small businesses in the Fargo area.

So consumers and communications companies are apparently getting ready now for the era of high-technology shopping; maybe in a few years retailers will be ready, too.

For retailers, the use of cable TV, home computer terminals, or videodiscs for shopping means adapting to some dramatic changes in retailing concepts as well as heavy investments in new equipment. And for most businesses, it means taking steps now to prepare for something that will not affect them for at least several years.

Early preparation is necessary, says John Moon, publisher of The Retail Management Letter, a Plymouth, Mich., newsletter, because many of the pieces that will change the way people shop are already in place. These include credit cards, computers, and cable TV and phone systems.

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