Small biz goes after fed e-commerce

Apogee Computer Solutions Inc., a small, disadvantaged business and value-added reseller, is beefing up its electronic commerce presence in an effort to become a one-stop shopping World Wide Web resource for government purchases.

ApogeeOnline, the company's online ordering system, specifically targets federal, state and local government agencies that are looking to buy a wide range of computer hardware and software. "It's about a $100 billion market out there," said Jeff Grant, president of Apogee. "That's a compelling marketplace."Currently, ApogeeOnline offers more than 96,000 hardware and software products in its open market catalog and next quarter will offer about 14,000 items from manufacturers represented on the company's General Services Administration schedule.

In addition, ApogeeOnline, located at www.apogeeonline.com, will incorporate products from Apogee's California Multiple Award Schedule and products from GSA schedules held by the company's business partners.

The company's online catalog allows users to search for products and services, compare prices, place orders and pay for them online. Buyers can use a credit card, government purchase card or government purchase order to pay for the items.

Through an arrangement with JetForm Corp., Apogee plans to make available agency-specific ordering forms so that government users can fill out the form online and either print it out and mail or fax it in or digitally sign it to be processed electronically. The system automatically will fill out the agency name, the "bill to" and "ship to" addresses, as well as the contents of the order.

Although this is an "ambitious project" for a company the size of Apogee, Grant believes the site can compete well against some of its largest competitors, such as Government Technology Services Inc., which in March announced enhancements to its own Web site.

"The whole idea is to minimize the cost of ordering through workflow," Grant said. "The processes in place now are expensive. Our goal is to minimize those costs where it will drive down the cost of internal overhead."

Grant said he has no plans to grow Apogee into a "monster" company but will continue to "provide solutions to government agencies to streamline their processes and make it more affordable" for them and for vendors to do business. In the future, the company will put a greater focus on services offerings and leasing, he added.

Ultimately, what the online shopper is looking for is "transactional ease," said Mark Amtower, president of consulting firm Amtower & Co. Some companies such as GTSI have succeeded in making it easy for shoppers to search for and order products, which brings buyers back to the site time after time, he said."Apogee or anyone else needs to make the process as seamless as possible," Amtower said. "If there is a screwup in any way during the process, if people are delayed for any reason, they're not coming" back to the site, he said.

Offering online forms may help attract some agencies to the Apogee site, Amtower said, but the real discriminator will be "how fast you can get products out the door."

Tony Trenkle, director of the electronic services staff at the Social Security Administration, said online forms should help agencies comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. That law requires agencies to have in place by October 2003 systems that provide the public with the option of submitting government forms electronically whenever possible. Eventually, forms will become less important, however, as ordering systems become fully integrated, he added.

However, the success or failure of the site likely will depend on how well Apogee markets its offerings to agencies and works with its customers, Trenkle said.

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