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A FRENCH LOVE AFFAIR WITH MINITEL (int'l edition)

Two years ago, seeking a new, cheaper apartment in central Paris, I was getting desperate. The obligatory three-month notice I had given my landlady was nearly up, and I was due to go on vacation. Scrambling to beat other renters to the choicest apartments advertised in the papers had brought me no closer to my goal. Someone always got there first.

Then a French friend said: ''Have you tried '3615 LOCAT'?''
I didn't know what she meant.
''Minitel. That's how I found my place.''
On my Minitel terminal at work, typing the access code and ''LOCAT''--abbreviated French for ''rental''--brought up a questionnaire. What size apartment did I want, what could I spend, and what neighborhood did I prefer? When a selection of ads appeared, I couldn't believe it: Listed was an apartment of perfect size and price, within walking distance of my office. No, said the agent, she had not yet shown it to anyone. I rented it after one visit, and now I walk to work.

The business generated by its rental, sales, and commercial-property listing services for Minitelorama, the tiny, Paris-based company that manages them, shows why 14-year-old Minitel still reigns in the French online world. The services get at least 100,000 hits a month, generating half of Minitelorama's annual revenues of $7 million. The 1,000 real estate agencies that place ads pay $1,000 a year for up to 20 listings; people pay 37 cents per minute to access the service. In contrast, the Internet versions of Minitelorama services have received only 100,000 hits since their launch in February, 1996.

For larger French corporations, the contrast gets even more dramatic. Mail-order fashion specialist La Redoute, based in Roubaix, has one of the country's longest-running Minitel services, in operation since 1984. With nearly 8,000 orders per day, Minitel accounts for 17% of revenues, or $300,000 per year, says Jean-Pierre Caby, manager of new-media development at La Redoute. The company's two-year-old Internet sites get 32,000 hits per week, but only 10 to 20 orders per day, Caby adds.

COHABITING. Indeed, in France, the Net cannot yet begin to compare to the economic importance of Minitel, as beloved and familiar to the French as their local wine shop. Every year, France Telecom rebates $500 million to the content editors and information systems companies that manage Minitel servers. Only a handful of Minitel's 25,000 services--everything from astrology to stock trading--have Net versions. And even those don't intend to drop their Minitel services.

''Our Minitel service is very, very profitable,'' says Francois Duriez, sales manager for digital tourism products at Michelin. ''We will not eliminate it in order to migrate to the Internet, but will make the two cohabit. The Internet is not profitable, but it will be: It's the Minitel 20 years ago.'' I'll believe it if I find my next apartment on the Internet.

By Marsha Johnston in Paris


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Updated Sept. 18, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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