Unisys online shopping delivers

Remember when you had to hit the computer superstores to go shopping? Or when you had to go leafing through bulky catalogs to find the products you needed? If you're a federal information technology buyer, you can say goodbye to traditional methods of shopping, which seem almost quaint today, and join the growing ranks of consumers doing their shopping online.

Many computer suppliers and resellers offer online shopping services, much like e-commerce mammoths such as Amazon.com. Unisys Corp., one of the first computer companies to target government buyers with online shopping, recently expanded its Select IT operation to offer products from its key government contracts as well as through the open market.

Through its online venture, now named Unisys Federal Online (www.unisysfederalonline.com), you can sit at your desk and purchase items ranging from videos to memory to product warranties, as well as full computer systems, and have it all shipped to your office.

But how good of a shopping experience is it? Armed with a GSA SmartPay Visa card number supplied by a Unisys official, we decided to find out. We wanted to see how easy it was to navigate the World Wide Web site and whether products would arrive in the promised amount of time.

The results were mixed. Overall, we found Unisys Federal Online a very good site, but we also encountered enough bugs in the system to realize online shopping still is evolving, and users ready for the online experience should expect to endure a few bumps along the way.

Finding the Product

The Unisys Federal Online home page offers several approaches for finding a product. Quick Search offers a drop-down list of product categories, a drop-down list of contracts and a keyword field. Detailed Search enables you to type in a description, select from drop-down lists of manufacturers and product categories, type in part numbers and even choose a price range. You can perform a Detailed Search for products listed only on a particular contract by selecting the Shop Contracts option.

Unisys offers products from the open market, the General Services Administration schedule and the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Computer Store II contract, and it soon will offer products from NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II. If you simply want to browse the entire selection of products, there is a Products link that takes you to a listing of product categories and enables you to drill down to specifics.

When you find a product you wish to purchase, click the Buy button next to it. This places the item in your virtual shopping cart. You then can click a button to continue shopping or proceed to checkout.

When checking out, new customers need to fill in billing information such as name, address, phone number and government agency. Each customer also must set up a log-in account consisting of an e-mail address and password. For subsequent orders, customers need to log in using only their e-mail address and password and fill out credit card information and select a shipping option - UPS ground, second-day Federal Express or next-day Federal Express.

Finding Assistance

Unisys offers a lot of help options and information as you navigate the site, and it provides a toll-free phone number and an e-mail address to which you can direct general questions. Unisys also lists more specific contacts (phone numbers and e-mail addresses) for matters relating to particular contracts, such as technical and ordering assistance, warranty/maintenance, delivery status and quote requests.

A Sales Support link brings you to an extensive list of Unisys sales managers, alphabetized by government agency. The list includes each sales manager's e-mail address and phone number.

If all of that help isn't enough, Unisys offers a free Instant Assistant feature. Click on the button, which appears on each page of the Web site, type in your phone number, and you are supposed to instantly receive a phone call.

When we tried this feature, the phone call was indeed instant, but the caller turned out to be a recording informing us that we would have to wait for the next available representative. Unfortunately, our first two calls were disconnected after about a minute on hold.

The third call was successful, with a person picking up after we were on hold for about 90 seconds. The representative was friendly and helpful, but we discovered that this is not the feature to use for questions such as technical problems or questions about the Web site. The person we talked to was in the sales department, so he could help only with information such as the status of my order or questions about the products.

Overall, we think the Instant Assistant is a nice feature, especially because Unisys makes the call so customers do not incur long-distance charges. We hope the disconnect problems will be ironed out soon.

Ordering Made Easy

The ordering process itself was very easy. The Web site is intuitive and simple to navigate. The product selection is vast, and many listings feature links that offer detailed technical information about the item.

We also liked the product groupings, which list related accessories along with a main type of product. For example, a search on monitors returned not only a listing of those items, but also a listing for a monitor stand.

As you add each item to your shopping cart, the prices are added so you can see a running total. A Unisys representative told us there should be a feature that shows buyers the percentage of the order that are open-market items and the percentage that are on contracts, but none of us could find that information.

We asked the Instant Assistant representative about this, but because he was in sales, he couldn't help us, although he said he would alert the appropriate people to the issue.

A nice ordering feature is that you can save your shopping cart contents as a price quote. This way, if you need a superior's approval before officially submitting the order, you can present a printed form with all the ordering information. You can return to the Web site, pull up your virtual shopping cart and submit the order. You can create print-friendly forms for regular orders as well - a great way to keep track of all the information pertaining to your order.

We submitted our first order Thursday, Aug. 12, at 5:30 p.m., for three items: a fax modem, an 18-inch flat-panel monitor and a set of mounting rails. We selected the second-day Federal Express shipping option for $37. We also placed an order Monday, Aug. 16, at 1:30 p.m., for a hard drive and a desktop PC, selecting the overnight shipping option, which cost $96.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17, around 2 p.m., we received a voice-mail message from a Unisys representative saying he had a question about my order (at this point, we had not received any products).

We were unable to call him back that day, but he called again the next day. He explained that several of the products we ordered had been discontinued, but Unisys was offering similar replacements for the same price or less. He asked if we wanted the replacements or if we would like to cancel our orders for those products.

In a few cases, the replacement was the latest version of the product by the same vendor (such as the desktop PC), but in other cases, the replacement carried a different brand name but featured the same specifications (as was the case with the hard drive).

Unfortunately, during this conversation, we discovered that the Unisys representative knew we were testing the Web site (he could tell from the billing information). However, he said he was following the same process he would with any customer. We decided to proceed with the order and asked him to send us the replacement products.

We received the hard drive first thing in the morning the next day, Thursday, Aug. 19. But nothing else arrived that day. It seems we also should have received the desktop PC that day, as we had paid for overnight shipping for both of those items. It did arrive first thing in the morning the day after, Friday, Aug. 20.

All of the items from my first order also arrived Aug. 20, which was in line with the second-day shipping option we had chosen, counting two days from my conversation with the representative in which we ordered the replacement items.

We later placed another order, this time for a software package, with the hope that we could experience the online ordering process without the delay of discontinued items.

Filling the Blanks

Perhaps, by incredible coincidence, we managed to choose the few items out of thousands that were not up to date on the Web site, but the fact that we chose different types of items and ordered on different days leaves us thinking that Unisys needs to do a better job of keeping its product list updated. However, we give the company credit for its responsiveness - but with the caveat that its representatives knew we were testing the site.

Out of six items ordered, all arrived on time from the day we authorized shipment of replacement items, except one, the desktop PC. That item does raise a concern, though. If we had paid $96 for overnight shipping, we would have been upset if it hadn't arrived the next day.

Although we thought the Web site was very good overall, there were technical concerns. In the course of exploring the site for two weeks, we encountered random trouble spots. For example, some of the drop-down lists for searches worked fine on some days, but on other days, there was no information in them. The list price for one modem we saw was $0. And the last time we placed an order, all of the shipping costs were listed as $0. In addition, the How To Order section of the site was empty.

Despite the problems, we think Unisys Federal Online has great potential. The company definitely is on the right track with this service. Representatives told us about some other features planned for the future. One is a computer "configurator" that will enable shoppers to choose from certain categories - such as hard drive, monitor and memory - to customize a PC. At press time, shoppers must order PCs that are preconfigured.

Another planned improvement is a personal shopper feature that will notify customers via e-mail when a product is available. This feature also will bring up related products when a buyer performs a search on an item that is not available.

We hope Unisys will iron out the wrinkles in Unisys Federal Online soon. What could be more convenient than ordering products right from your desk and having them delivered to your door in a matter of days? Keep an eye on this Web site because the company seems dedicated and excited about the service. There also is a place on the site where customers can e-mail suggestions to the company.

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