The sheer coincidence of two catalogue showroom companies 100 miles apart filing for bankruptcy protection within the same week is most striking. It's no coincidence, however, that the two companies, W. Bell & Co. of Rockville and Best Products Inc. of Richmond, were driven to the same inevitable conclusion. Only a decision to enter bankruptcy proceedings stands between them and the edge of a cliff.

The catalogue showroom business is in trouble, pushed to the brink by a formidable combination of retail merchandising concepts that have taken hold in the marketplace since the showrooms flourished in the '50s and '60s.

Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection merely postpones the inevitable for W. Bell and Best unless managements at the two companies bite the bullet and abandon the catalogue showroom concept in favor of some other retail strategy. Along with reorganizing their companies, they need to be more creative by coming up with a new retail concept or a sharply modified version of the obsolescent catalogue showroom.

Service Merchandise Co., the largest of the catalogue showroom companies, has upgraded merchandise selections and has instituted an aggressive niche-marketing program. The industry as a whole, however, continues to slide toward oblivion, seemingly unable to adapt to changes in consumer preferences and modern merchandising trends.

"The catalogue showroom concept is archaic and is not appropriate in today's shopping environment," says Kenneth Gassman, retail analyst at Richmond-based Wheat First Securities, Inc.

It's not so much the appropriateness of catalogue showrooms as it is a question of their viability. The rare corner grocery store, surrounded by modern giant supermarkets, may be more viable than the catalogue showroom. Back-breaking competition from a variety of discount retailers with greater appeal to consumers have stripped catalogue showroom operators of what had been their only advantage: lower prices for certain name-brand merchandise. Only four of the top 10 catalogue showroom companies operating in 1981 are in business today. Part of that is due, of course, to consolidation.

Catalogue showrooms had their origin in the 1950s and thrived through three decades under fair trade laws that prevented other retailers from selling below manufacturers' suggested retail prices. The catalogue showroom operators in the beginning had argued successfully that they weren't in the competitive retailing business because they sold only to other businesses.

Their ploy, which worked so well for years, was to sell merchandise that companies could use for gifts and incentive awards. Employees of those companies and their relatives were able to take advantage of discount prices on jewelry and other specialty items. Eventually the difference between a business customer and the average consumer became zilch.

Showroom operators studiously avoided the sale of apparel and other soft goods sold by conventional retailers. That way they could avoid fair-trade laws. But their biggest selling point was price. They only carried nationally advertised brand names for a point of comparison.

That worked well as long as catalogue showroom operators were able to demonstrate that consumers could buy nationally advertised brands cheaper in their stores than in leading department or jewelry stores. However, when the fair-trade laws were abolished in the 1970s, catalogue showrooms lost their safety net.

The price advantage they enjoyed evaporated with the growth of giant department store chains such as K mart, Walmart and Woolco, which gave new meaning to discount retailing.

"K mart and the others could offer higher levels of service on the sales floor, a greater assortment of merchandise, store ambiance and a higher customer-service level," said Gassman. "Since the catalogue showrooms were solely dependent on price, K mart could be competitive. So the consumer {eventually} said, 'Why should I waste my time shopping at a catalogue showroom store?' "

Changes in consumer shopping habits hurt the catalogue showrooms. So have greater emphasis by retailers -- and consumers -- on one-stop shopping. Add those to the emergence of the shopping mall as retailing's biggest symbol and the proliferation of specialty discount stores and you have the demise of the catalogue showroom.

Consumers long ago became disenchanted with the catalogue showroom format in which they selected merchandise from a catalogue or viewed it in a display case before submitting their order to a clerk who then retrieved the item from an in-store warehouse.

"Today's consumer demands a higher customer-service level and a more pleasant shopping experience than a catalogue showroom can provide," insists Gassman

Best Products recognized the need to make adjustments in the catalogue showroom concept but, burdened by debt from a $1 billion buyout three years ago, was forced to seek refuge in Chapter 11 before embarking on major changes. Operators of W. Bell tried to sell the company before filing to reorganize under Chapter 11. But why would anyone want to buy a catalogue showroom operation in today's retail environment?

A Best spokesman was quoted recently as saying the company's valuable real estate holdings, $250 million in cash and a $250 million bank loan would allow it to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings within a couple of years. It would have to be as something other than the traditional catalogue showroom company or the reorganization will have been in vain.

Consumers and retail competitors made the decision for the Bests and W. Bells of the industry long ago. They either must find another retail niche or perish.