Online window shopping

Reacting to widespread use of the Internet and government credit cards, an increasing number of agencies are building electronic catalogs and electronic malls that allow users to browse merchandise offered by federal contractors and place orders online.

Agencies such as the Defense Logistics Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the General Services Administration and NASA have transferred the concept of catalogs or shopping malls to the online world.

Like a paper catalog, an electronic catalog offers information that lists products, product features and prices. But all searching and ordering is done online using a World Wide Web browser. An electronic mall, such as DLA's E-Mall, consists of multiple electronic catalogs and stores.

When agencies started to build online ordering sites several years ago, much of the technology was home-grown because there were few commercial electronic shopping products from which to choose. Now the market is changing, and more commercial products are available. Even agencies such as GSA that once built systems from scratch are swapping their in-house systems for commercial products that are more robust and easier to support.

Larry Gregory, E-Commerce market manager at Microsoft Corp., said this shift is good news for agencies. "Because of competition, products have come down in price," Gregory said. Microsoft, which entered the market when it acquired E-Shop two years ago, now offers Site Server 3.0 Commerce Edition, which provides a core electronic commerce technology that agencies can use to assemble a solution.

In addition to lower pricing, vendor support for standards will make it easier for agencies to do business online. For example, the Open Buying on the Internet (OBI) standard, developed by the Internet Purchasing Roundtable and maintained by the OBI Consortium, specifies such things as the process by which users gain access to a catalog, the data structure and the purchase order format.

The nascent object-oriented Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium can identify and classify data in a document, making it easier to search for products on the front end and manage transactions on the back end.

Agencies also are taking advantage of the trend toward adopting distributed instead of centralized architectures for online shopping systems. Under a distributed architecture, catalogs in different physical locations are presented to the user as if they are in one place. This arrangement requires less work for the agency and the vendor because it does not require a vendor to feed updated product information to a central database maintained by the agency. Instead, the data is accessed where it resides.

"The trends now are going toward a distributed architecture and toward interoperability, so agencies don't have to write application programming interfaces for every vendor," said Ron Parsons, director of eastern region business development at the CommerceNet industry association. CommerceNet, along with GSA, NASA, the Defense Information Services Agency, DLA and the Navy, is participating in a catalog interoperability pilot.

The pilot demonstrates how a user can locate items in catalogs at other agencies or at vendor sites and is based on XML and CommerceNet's eCo architecture. Vendors such as Digital Commerce Corp., which is providing a user interface, and Saqqara Systems, which is providing advanced searching software, are lending their expertise to the project.

DLA took the distributed approach with its electronic mall. Its mall provides central access to multiple catalogs and stores that include office supplies from GSA Advantage and computer equipment from the Navy's Information Technology Catalog. DLA's E-Mall, which has been re-named the DOD E-Mall, allows users to conduct a single search across all stores and catalogs located within its mall and place orders electronically using a government credit card or military-standard requisition and issue procedure.

"Instead of trying to maintain this mammoth database, we're using the power of the Internet to allow vendors to do regular maintenance of the data themselves," said Scottie Knott, director of the Joint Electronic Commerce Program Office at DOD. "And [users] can access the information where it resides."

Knott added that the new architecture improves upon the older one, which provided only hyperlinks to online shopping sites. "It's a benefit because the way we're constructed, we can acquire a vendor's whole electronic catalog and hook it up to the E-Mall, and it can be another storefront for our customers to use," she said.

Users need only a Web browser to access the E-Mall. DLA can connect to any catalog database that is compliant with Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity standard. On the back end, orders are sent from the E-Mall to vendors via electronic data interchange if the vendor has the infrastructure to support EDI or via encrypted e-mail credit card orders. DLA uses order management software— developed under a contract awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency— that directs queries from the browser to the appropriate catalog and processes orders.

About 3 million products are for sale on the E-Mall. Eventually, the site will provide a single view of all available Defense Department products and services. E-Mall sales since January have been averaging about $5 million to $6 million a month.

Similarly, as GSA has added to the half million items it offers on GSA Advantage, it has watched its sales steadily increase. Al Iagnemmo, GSA Advantage production manager, projected sales from the site to total about $62 million for fiscal 1998, up from $28 million last year.

Currently GSA Advantage is based on a centralized architecture that requires vendors to send updated product and pricing information every night to the agency. However, GSA is testing a new XML-based software called Web Methods that promises to enable the agency to automatically grab information directly off vendors' sites.

GSA anticipates the number of products offered on GSA Advantage to increase dramatically, so it plans to replace the search engine it developed in-house with a commercial search engine called Verity, which was developed to work with the Sybase database GSA uses. Orders placed by users are either faxed or sent via EDI to the vendor.

One of the biggest advantages of electronic catalogs and malls is ease of use and efficiency, Iagnemmo said. "Three years ago, it would take months to buy a product," he said. "Now I use a browser to go on GSA Advantage, search for a product and order it using a government credit card. It's all done in the same day, in the same hour. We even have people ordering from aircraft carriers and can deliver the [products] to their next" port of call.

Aside from the convenience of the process, agencies also can save money through online acquisitions, said Paul Litvak, national director for electronic commerce at Oracle Government, Education & Health, which sells electronic commerce products such as its Oracle8i Internet database for hosting and using electronic catalogs and malls. A completely paperless contracting process can save agencies as much as 20 percent in operating costs associated with paper-based catalogs, he said.

Scott Sedlik, director of brand marketing at electronic catalog vendor iCAT, said outsourcing of electronic catalog or mall sites is another trend in the federal government.

"We're seeing a major move to outsource," he said. "Development and systems integration is sometimes done in-house, but many [agencies] find they don't have the resources or expertise to do it all."

John Lee, business line partner at Electric Press Inc., said his company hosts many agencies' electronic catalog sites. For example, it hosts the Army Small Computer Program site, NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement (SEWP) II program site, the Army's A-Mart site, the Justice Department's Unicor electronic catalog and GSA's Federal Technology Service pilot site. These sites use Electric Press' eFed product, which allows users to browse an online catalog, submit a request for quotes to vendors, receive quotes and place an order.

"We're hosting every one of these sites, and we provide support at different levels for every one," Lee said. He said eFed is designed to handle the unique demands of the federal market, such as the surcharges that agencies charge on an order.

There are 140,000 line items and 400 vendors on the SEWP II contract, said Joanne Woytek, SEWP manager at NASA. "This is the first full EDI site combined with searching capability," she said. "We had a prototype system based on a client/server arrangement, but the future is in the Web. That's why we went with a commercial solution. Electric Press is customizing it, but we didn't hire them to rewrite the system. My main goal is to improve the information in the database so it's easier to find things and to better integrate the site with the agency's [financial systems]."

Netscape Communications Corp. sells its CommerceXpert applications that let users build or outsource online catalogs and malls. Netscape also will host catalogs for small businesses or agencies. "It's going to enable smaller agencies to have catalog and products stored in OBI format," said John Menkart, regional DOD sales manager for Netscape.

NIH took a somewhat different approach when it built its IntraMall, which is an electronic shopping center that serves the agency's internal scientific community. "The idea was to create a faster, better way to give the scientific community more control over its purchases," said Jeffrey Weiner, program analyst at NIH. IntraMall, which was developed through a cooperative research and development agreement with CyberSystems Inc., is an intranet that is open only to NIH employees.

"We have more accurate and faster access to product information because it's all located in one place," Weiner said. "You don't have to search through five catalogs or Web sites. If you're a scientist and have a credit card, it gives you more autonomy in making purchasing decisions."

NIH also saves almost $15 per order by using a credit card rather than the traditional paper procurement system. "It's a great time to be in electronic commerce because it's a huge growing initiative," Weiner said. "Most of us are looking to incrementally improve it as much as we can."

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