Dot-gov goes retail
- By Graeme Browning, Judi Hasson
- May 28, 2001
Move over, Amazon.com! Make way for your newest competitor in e-retailing:
the federal government.
In the first comprehensive study of its kind, Federal Computer Week
and the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the government
has become more successful at online retailing than the company whose name
is synonymous with online shopping. Last year, Uncle Sam sold more than
$3.6 billion in products and property via the Internet. Amazon.com reported
net sales of $2.8 billion in 2000.
Although it's nothing new for government
to sell excess property and assets, using the Internet is changing the way
the government does business. Now it can reach a wider buying audience and
achieve a greater level of efficiency than before, current and former technology
executives say. And the lower overhead to sell products and excess property
means savings for taxpayers.
According to the study, the federal government operates or supports
at least 164 sites that sell something to the public. The Defense Department
operates at least eight sites that sell products ranging from toothpaste
to used Army trucks and, in most cases, require a government identification
to buy the products. The Treasury Department's "Treasury Direct" site accounts
for the vast majority of government sales online, selling $3.3 billion in
U.S. savings bonds, T-bills and notes during the past year.
"It is a natural evolution for the government to sell directly to the
public," said Bill Piatt, director of e-government strategy at Booz-Allen
& Hamilton Inc. and former chief information officer for the General
Services Administration, one of the bigger online sellers in government.
"Many more citizens have access to property online than they do through
the old approach."
Planes, Horses and Automobiles
From rare horses to houses, jet engines to high-performance cars, to
everyday paraphernalia such as postage stamps and sweatshirts, Americans
can find a variety of items for sale on sites run by federal agencies or
by private companies under contract to the government to sell property.
Many consumers seem thrilled with their purchases. Last summer, computer
scientist Tim Gorder ordered eight maps from a U.S. Geological Survey Web
site (mapping.usgs.gov) in preparation for a five-day hike with his brother
through Olympic National Park. The park is located in Washington state,
thousands of miles from Gorder's home in King George, Va., and the locally
available maps didn't have the level of detail he needed. "I had to have
the most up-to-date information," Gorder said. "A Rand McNally map just
won't do it for hiking in a wilderness area."
Lisa Shook, who lives in Bryans Road, Md., bought two wild mustangs
from the Bureau of Land Management via the agency's Internet auction site
(www.adoptahorse.blm.gov). BLM, by law, must protect the thousands of wild
horses roaming federal land and auctions off horses to manage the ranges.
After qualifying to bid for horses under BLM's rigorous requirements, Shook a competitive trail rider and horse show judge sweated as the prices
on her favorites rose over the two-week auction period. "I ran to the computer
10 times a day, every day," she said with a laugh. "It was sickening. But
I thoroughly enjoyed it."
Axle, one of the horses Shook bought, is also a living piece of history.
A gray-tan color known as "grulla," Axle bears some of the characteristics
of the Barbs, a breed of horse first brought to North America by Spanish
explorers in the 1600s. Although most horses on the BLM site sell for $125
to $250, mares from the wild mustang herd, where the so-called Spanish-Colonial
markings predominate, have brought an average of $3,500 via the Internet.
The BLM auction site has been part of the World Wide Web since 1998.
But many more federal sites are cropping up. Only a few months ago, eager
buyers quickly spent $1.8 million for eight Los Angeles-area houses that
the Coast Guard had owned. They picked up the houses courtesy of a GSA pilot
proj.ect selling government real estate online that has since expanded nationwide
at www.gsa.gov/pr/prhome.htm (see "Homesforsale.gov," Page 22).
David Gonzalez, a carpenter from Oxnard, Calif., bought one of the houses
for $173,000. The three-bedroom, two-bath property came with retrofitted
windows and an alarm system. "It was in excellent condition," said Gonzalez,
who, oddly enough, learned of the sale from the man who drives an ice cream
truck through the neighborhood every day.
At least one property available online is more of a fixer- upper. In
May, the GSA site listed a light-keeper's house in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.,
built in 1919 on a half-acre of land. The one-story dwelling, according
to the site, is in "very poor condition."
Celebrities also have found deals on federal Web sites: 2000 Olympic
gold medalist Rulon Gardner paid $56,000 for a Dodge Viper that U.S. marshals
had seized in a fraud case. The wrestler bought the car online from a private
service commissioned by the U.S. Marshals Service, which paid the company
a $3,800 fee, and he picked it up at a federal warehouse in Las Vegas.
"I heard you could find reasonable deals online," he said. "It's my dream
Few Rules and Few Standards
The idea of government selling online is so new that there are no studies
yet to define it and few critics to complain about it. Some experts say
it's a good idea, at least on paper, because the Internet potentially reaches
everybody, and taxpayers can reap the benefit of better government services.
"The American public has the right to expect government to run in a
lean and efficient manner," said John Mitchell, CIO at the U.S. Mint (www.usmint.gov/catalog),
which sells collectible and commemorative coins, holiday ornaments and jewelry
online. The U.S. Mint is one of the most successful online sales operations
in government. In 2000, it had $150 million in sales, more than triple the
$41.4 million it logged during its eight months of operation in 1999.
Yet for all its success in establishing a digital marketplace, the government
seems to be going about the job in a hap.hazard fashion. The money that
dot-gov Web sites bring in is not carefully tracked revenue is usually
deposited in the general fund or, in some cases, as with the Mint, funneled
back to the agency to add more sophisticated features to its Web site. Indeed,
there are few rules and even fewer standards for conducting business.
Although some forward-thinking federal Webmasters have made it possible
to place an order online, most of the sites in this study require the purchaser
to call in an order via telephone or download an order form and fax it or
send it via "snail mail." Some sites are as well-designed and as easy to
navigate as a commercial site, but visitors to many of the sites may find
themselves digging through pages of extraneous information to get the item
they want, clicking a mouse a dozen times or coming away frustrated and
Fans of 1940s Southern blues, for example, would never know that the
Library of Congress' American Folklife Center sells audiocassettes of historic
recordings from that period because a link to the center is buried three
layers down in the Library's Web site. The sites for the presidential libraries
administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (such as
www.jfklibrary.org/stormenu.htm) offer items sure to please the public's
heart including a reproduction of John F. Kennedy's famous rocking chair but orders may be placed only via fax, phone or regular mail.
In several cases, a site designed by an agency's regional office is
more technologically sophisticated than the site maintained at headquarters.
The Gulf Coast regional office of the Minerals Management Service (www.gomr.mms.gov),
for example, offers forms on its Web site that can be used to bid on oil
leases in the Gulf of Mexico. No other MMS site does that.
"When we first started, we couldn't get buy-in from management," Webmaster
Byron Congdon said of the 7-year-old site. "But as we showed what we could
do, and how comfortable our customers were with it, suddenly all the supervisors
in this office got competitive about who could be the first to get information
on the Web."
Congdon's experience demonstrates why it's too early in the game to
impose centralized rules on government Web site design, said Treasury Department
CIO Jim Flyzik, federal CIO Council vice chairman. "We're just in the infancy
of government transactions. This will evolve," he said. But "the concept
of a government shopping mall is emerging."
In the meantime, some major difficulties remain. One of the most glaring
is that the government sites don't hang out "For Sale" signs to attract
Internet bargain hunters.
Although the federal government has been making a stab at one-stop shopping
with portals such as fedsales.gov, which brings together asset sales across
government, and FirstGov, a search engine for everything .gov, neither of
these sites can link the average consumer to every government item available
for online purchase. The difficulty in finding sites stems from the lack
of a governmentwide policy for handling e-government sales or for consolidating
operations, experts say.
"Agencies haven't seen the benefit of a single port of entry," said
Mary Mitchell, who heads GSA's office of e-government. "For the most part,
doing it right will cost money, and the agencies aren't into spending money."
In addition, some shoppers are having a hard time adapting to the Internet
way of thinking. "We prefer bidding in the old, conventional fashion. I
don't like checking my computer three times a day," said Don Harvell, spokesman
for Maritime Equipment & Sales Inc., which buys old ships and barges
from the federal government, refurbishes them and sells them for a profit.
said, the Alabama firm hit pay dirt in April when it bought Tamaroa, a historic
Coast Guard cutter, from GSA's Web site. The World War II vessel was used
in 1991 to help rescue people including the crew of an Air National Guard
helicopter from the roiling Atlantic Ocean during the so-called Halloween
Storm, which inspired the book and film "The Perfect Storm." The company
plans to overhaul the ship, add a heli.pad and resell it.
"Fuddy-Duddies' No More
On the other hand, some shoppers have proven to be far more adept at
Internet transactions than even the Webmasters suspected. The National World
War II Memorial site, for example, has raised an astounding $2.3 million
online since it was launched a little more than two years ago. "We thought
most of the people who would contribute to a memorial for World War II wouldn't
be using the Internet," admitted Anthony Corea, director of operations and
finance for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which administers
the site. "I guess we were being old fuddy-duddies."
BLM also has auctioned wild mustangs via live satellite downlink. More
than 400 people watched the broadcast and called in bids during each of
the last two auctions, and an even larger audience is expected for the next
one this summer, BLM Nevada Office spokeswoman Debra Kolkman said.
For those who know about it, online shopping is convenient, too. Last
year, the National Park Service made more than $5.4 million in online reservations
for campers. Amtrak, a quasi-governmental agency, sold more than $62 million
in tickets online, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service sold $1
million in subscriptions for newspaper articles translated by the CIA and
made available for $65 a month. Subscribers include businesses looking for
global marketing intelligence before launching a venture.
The Internet also offers the government a faster way to sell property,
cutting the cost of warehousing and cataloging items seized by law enforcement
GSA launched an auction site Jan. 17 (www.gsaauctions.gov) that offers
government surplus property. An agency that uses the site to sell property
pays GSA a commission based on a sliding scale and avoids the cost of indefinitely
storing property. In the first three months of operation, the site sold
more than $3 million in goods.
"We're not like other Internet auction sites. We are doing business
on behalf of the government," said Victor Arnold-Bik, chief of the sales
branch for the property management division and part of the team that is
working on the GSA auction site.
Other sites are exceeding expectations, too, in the amount of money
they bring in and the demand from the public for more. The U.S. Postal Service,
which sells $27 million worth of stamps online, for example, is considering
finding new sources of revenue, such as selling personalized wedding stationery.
"We're not going to try to go out and put small entrepreneurs out of
business," promised Norm Cloher, USPS' manager for online services. But
Cloher said the cash-strapped USPS is looking for ways to make money. In
fact, the Postal Service has been selling undeliverable packages such as
books, videos and CDs on eBay, the retail online auction site.
Some government agencies find managing an online shopping site too tough
to do alone. After trying its own site, the U.S. Marshals Service decided
it was too costly and time- consuming. The agency hired Bid4assets.com Inc.,
an online auction site based in Silver Spring, Md., to sell many of the
big-ticket assets seized by the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement
Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and U.S. Attorneys
"It's a very low-cost approach for the government," said David Marchick,
Bid4assets.com vice president. "We footed the million-dollar plus bill for
the Web site. We handle all the customer service, calls and e-mails. We
place ads in newspapers and magazines." The company also takes online deposits
from potential buyers and handles the paperwork for the sale.
Recent sales included helicopters, land in Hawaii, a Lamborghini Diablo
and an entire DOD commissary including checkout counters and walk-in freezers.
But some experts question the evolution of the government as an online
retailer. Jakob Neilsen, a Silicon Valley expert on Web usability, said
the government has an unfair advantage in e-retailing because it does not
have to concern itself with making a profit, as do businesses that may sell
similar goods online.
The government is not "motivated by sales going up or going down," Neilsen
said. And so any effort to make a go at online sales "requires a decision
at the top the very head of an agency who can say, "I want my Web site
to have information for the audience and to serve the people.'"
"It's appropriate when it adds a service that people couldn't get elsewhere in other words, only when the private sector cannot do the same job,"
said Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department.
Government is still defining what it is doing and whether it should
be online at all, said Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel
for the Computer & Communications Industry Association. "If there is
no compelling need for the government to do it except that they believe
they can make money from it, that shouldn't be the motivation. Government
is not there to make money," Mahler said.
Perhaps, but it seems that for
the government, Internet sales are here to stay and likely to increase.
The Tennessee Valley Authority and NASA are considering pilot projects to
test their own brand of online shopping. The Defense National Stockpile
Center, which last year sold $526 million in commodities such as platinum,
industrial diamonds and titanium, is looking at online sales as well. The
Bush administration wants millions for e-government, and the increasing
number of federal Web sales even mirrors the boom in private-sector online
sales, which increased to $7 billion in the first quarter of this year
up 33 percent from the same period last year, according to the Census Bureau.
For now, Americans such as Doris Hennessy Winckler like what their government
is doing. Five times a year, the 80-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., resident
and her family use the American Battle Monuments Commission's Web site to
order flowers for the grave of her brother, Army Capt. John Hennessy, who
was killed in action during World War II in Italy and is buried in the Florence
"For the past 25 years, I'd been putting a check in an envelope and
sending it all the way to Rome," Winckler said. "Now, if I look at my calendar
and suddenly realize Jack's birthday is coming up in a few days, all I do
is call my daughter, she fills out the order form on the Internet and they
know about it in Rome. This computer thing is marvelous."
Browning is a freelance technology writer based in Bethesda, Md.