Previous articles have explained some of the ways e-commerce may affect your project management when you use Internet applications service providers for collaboration and material purchasing. (See EC January 2001 for a recap of the first annual “E-commerce Conference.”) Now it is time to look at the e-commerce applications that could improve your overhead operations.

To prepare this article, I looked through the advertisements in several small business magazines and noted ones that seemed to offer e-commerce services you could use. They seem to fall into two groups, i.e., those traditional office suppliers offering Internet retailing and some new players setting up shop on the Internet, bypassing traditional retail stores. Their basic pitch is that ordering your overhead supplies directly will save time, and time is money. Determining whether or not you find this approach cost effective may take a little experimenting. So here are some places to begin checking to see if e-commerce can reduce your overhead. (Note: I make no guarantees about the operations or accuracy of these statements, given the short lifespan of some dot-com companies.)

The old standby office suppliers, Staples and Office Depot, both offer Internet retailing at www.staples.com and www.officedepot.com. When you visit these sites, you will see primary categories of merchandise including office supplies, furniture, technology, and such. They both also offer additional business services you may find useful. For example, Office Depot offers advice and training in such subjects as “Managing Money, “Marketing Ser-vices,” “Communications,” and “Managing People.” Staples includes in their offerings help with “Office Operations,” “HR & Staffing,” “Sales & Marketing,” and “Legal & Insurance.” Both Staples and Office Depot also offer tax preparation advice and clerical tools, including downloadable forms.

Staples recently offered electronic document preparation and distribution. For example, you could prepare project reports or proposals, sales brochures, etc. and have them distributed automatically through a separate site at www.staples.com/docpromo. Their claims for benefits include access to the service from any Internet-enabled computer, encoded information for security, unlimited document size, a print preview that lets you see the document exactly as it will appear, and 24x7 customer support.

To check out other document transmittal portals, check alternatives at www.sendspot.com. This is a new information portal that simplifies the search for the best and most useful correspondence resources on the Web.

You can order special pre-designed paper for all your business promotion needs from business cards to sales brochures at www.paperdirect.com.

To buy online from Staples and Office Depot, you will need to register and set up a credit line, and designate a secret password for security. To enter an order, you identify your zip code and the system accesses all available inventory in your area. It tells how much time to allow for shipment and order processing. When I asked about my office supply needs, I found everything I needed was in stock and deliverable in one day.

Once you register and set up your credit and password files, you can compile most frequently needed items to fill up your cart with more quickly. Of course, when shopping online, you don’t get to do much people watching or actual window shopping, but if saving time is important to you, check out these online mainline retailers.

And speaking of documents, how about storing them in an “eCabinet” from Ricoh? One customer noted his company saved $106,000 by reduced costs for employee hours, maintaining filing cabinets, and off-site storage. He said, “We don’t spend time—which is money—chasing and storing paper anymore. And we’ll never lose a document again.” The eCabinet automatically captures and stores every document that runs through a networked office including fax, photocopy, PC file, scan, and e-mail. The eCabinet is especially valuable to document-intensive businesses. To learn more, visit www.rsv.ricoh.com/iw.

For “snail mail,” how about electronic postage? Several online options enable you to print your own stamps—legally. Created by software residing on your own PC or a Web-based application service provider, e-postage can be bought online and printed with your printer. It is a convenient alternative to running back and forth to the post office. However, there are strict U.S. Postal Service (USPS) restrictions on printer quality for indicia and vendor-added premiums to USPS postage prices to observe. E-postage vendors are doing their best to make the process easier and less expensive. Getting started sometimes is thwarted with mangled envelopes and setup problems, but e-postage can be an efficient way to send out business correspondence, direct marketing, and even packages. The favorite of Home Office Computing magazine is www.stamps.com, both for ease of setup and accessibility of software. You can select the type of media you want to use, i.e., envelopes, shipping labels etc., then enter weight, mail class, and special services. There is a flat fee of 10 percent of postage printed, with a $4.49 minimum and 29-day free trial. New customers also get a free scale and $20 in free postage to start.

But the USPS is in on the act, also. Its product, called “Simply Postage,” gives you a compact, integrated scale and postage meter that plugs right into your computer. Their advertisement states, “With a few simple keyboard commands, you can automatically calculate exact postage. Before you know it you’re downloading and printing your own postage.” You can order online at www.simplypostage.com. The old standby postage meter, provided by Pitney Bowes, can also be replaced with their new online service called “ClickStamp Online.” It permits you to add your own logo or special message on envelopes and packages. Automatic address verification and special bar coding are included. Check it out at www.ClickStampOnline.com.

If you are just looking for some new office furniture, there is Computer Furniture Direct at www.cf-direct.com. Their claim reads like this: “Create the ultimate personalized work space with sturdy, real wood furniture. We deliver and set up in your office. Enjoy factory direct savings on over 25 different desks.” You can view the products online before you order. Do you want a chair to go with that desk? Try www.athome-atwork.com for one that is “multi-adjustable and ergonomic.” A neat modern version of the classic rolltop desk is available at www.hookerfurniture.com. Computer surge protection is built in. To really comparison shop for office furniture online, you can also visit www.buy.com, www.egghead.com, www.bottomdollar.com, and www.dealtime.com. There’s no need to look for a parking spot or wait for a clerk to see you either.
If you want to keep up with breaking small office computer news, including searchable archived back issues of Home Office Computing and Small Business Computing magazines, http://www.destinationsoho.com includes online community discussions about home office computing and small business computing. You can subscribe to a free weekly e-mail “work at home” newsletter that offers “timely tips and solutions to make your home office even more productive.” You can even enter a contest to win a free Toshiba Satellite 2805 Notebook computer.

If you have a company Web site or are thinking of setting one up, you can get some good ideas on building customer loyalty. According to Amy Kavanaugh, vice president of marketing at OhGolly, a small business Web site management firm based in Newport Beach, Calif., (www.ohgolly.com), the best online tools “always have a human connection, such as a link to a live chat where customers can get answers from a real person. Message boards, where visitors can post questions and information for every customer to see, sometimes lend more credibility to a small-business site, according to her. You can also conduct on-site surveys and conduct instant polls to both gather customer feedback and pique viewers’ curiosity. In another option, she suggests that you can give favored customers user names and passwords to provide privileged information. You can even include a video Web camera feature that permits customers to see your projects underway. Anything to create and maintain a dialogue with your customers will help set your firm apart. If you don’t yet have a company Web site, watch for a future article in EC about how to do it.

If you have a lot of business travel expenses, you can check numerous sites for options on airfares, hotels, auto rentals, and such on the Internet. I personally like www.expedia.com. Other popular sites include www.hotwire.com, www.travelocity.com, www.ebay.com, www.ticketplanet.com, andwww.webflyer.com. Your favor-ite travel agent may use the Internet to make reservations for you. For tips on getting the best deals, check articles from Inside Flyer magazine at www.insideflyer.com. Some sites even aggregate travel information from all the other sites. These include intellitrip.com, and www.qixo.com. If your travel schedule is flexible, you can get some good deals on unsold seats on flights. One of the e-commerce tricks airlines particularly dislike is when people trade their frequent flyer vouchers. There seems to be an underground market of people buying and selling their vouchers on www.ebay.com.

If you have a question about running a business, you might find the answer in the data bank of this information portal—www.business.com. It covers topics such as the nuts and bolts of accounting, legal, human resources, and others. Specialized legal information is at www.findlaw.com. This site also offers help with other business issues in finance and banking, and you can customize search tools to fit your own legal needs.

Finally, if you want to upgrade your computer equipment and maybe get a new printer or two, you can buy from all the major manufacturers online. Here are sites for some of the most popular brands: www.dell.com, www.epson.com, www.gateway.com, www.hp.com, www.lexmark.com, and www.umax.com/usa.

I hope you took notes, because there will be a written test next time. And you were wondering what you were going to do next weekend.

But don’t forget to check out the latest news and information about electrical contracting from EC at www.ecmag.com.

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He can be reached at (703) 321-9268 or lewtag@aol.com.