Look through this issue’s advertisements. I’ll bet you can’t find more than a few that do not include an Internet address to contact for more information. This “www” address is a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which is used to view a particular site on the World Wide Web. Actually, they begin with http://, which is the window to the net or hypertext transfer protocol.

They said that personal computers would replace paper. That has not happened, but in only a few years, Internet traffic has rocketed like a space shuttle. The Internet can transmit any kind of information people can dream up. And dream they have.

You can buy a book, sell a classic car, or send e-mail around the world at the speed of light on the Internet. You can also use it to help run your contracting business. Many contractors are getting with the program, but some are lagging and may be left behind in this new world of e-commerce. I did a spot check of some Washington, D.C. , contractors and found that 80 percent of them have a computer connected to the Internet through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). That means 20 percent of them are not yet online. Of those online, only a fraction are doing more than basic e-mail. This sample cannot be related to the whole industry of course, but we think there is a need for continuing education in the many benefits of Internet access. An April 2000 survey by the American Subcontractors Association (ASA) showed 73 percent using e-mail for business and 88 percent accessing the Web, but just 15 percent handling project documentation on the Web (Engineering News Record, Sept. 25, 2000).

By describing some actual sites that are operating now, we hope to better inform you of what they offer electrical contractors. Sometimes called “dotcoms,” most of these providers are new companies, although some are new ventures of established suppliers. Whether or not they survive and grow depends a lot on how well electrical contractors use them. So, if you do not yet have Internet access, perhaps these new e-commerce providers will help stimulate you to get online and start investigating them for yourself. If you are a computer user, please skip the next paragraph of fundamental instructions for those who need to get started.

If you are not equipped with a suitable personal computer, that should be your first investment. You can pay anywhere from $1,000 to nearly $4,000. Get the best one you can afford. At a minimum, look for a processor speed of 350Mhz or better, 128Mg of RAM, 6 Gig hard drive, a 24X CD drive, and 56KC modem. Don’t scrimp on the monitor, because you will be looking at it for long hours. Add on a good-quality color inkjet printer for a couple hundred dollars. Also, buy a power plug block with a built-in surge protector.

You may also consider a portable or laptop version that comes with a built-in monitor. (Be sure it is a good one.) These models are more expensive than PCs, but worth it if you want portability. If you need instructions on how to set up and use this equipment, ask the retailer. Perhaps your local adult education program includes computer literacy courses, or maybe a high school-aged acquaintance could teach you. Don’t be embarrassed to be a student. Everybody needs to learn something.

So what is e-commerce? This term describes conducting business over the Internet. A simple example would be buying books from Amazon.com.

The Internet is a massive, totally unmanaged (and some might say unmanageable) interconnection of computers worldwide. ISPs, such as America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy, EarthLink, etc., supply Internet access. The cost for access may be billed hourly or monthly for unlimited service. You might select a local Internet service provider if you don’t travel often, but consider a national provider if you will need to log online from remote locations.

A wide variety of e-construction activities can be conducted over the Internet. Owners can manage projects, architects can transfer drawings and specs, general contractors can take bids and schedule trades, and subcontractors can buy materials and submit invoices. And they can all communicate with each other through e-mail. Of course, the whole team must collaborate. One category of e-commerce provider is just that, a collaborator.

Other categories service only one or a few of these options. One option permits you to buy electrical products and materials online. Another simply packs all you ever wanted to know in an information portal.

A 3M spokesperson discussed the new world of e-commerce in relation to his company. 3M’s target audience includes electrical contractors and electrical wholesale distributors, with information often geared toward the larger accounts and for particular products. He noted that the information on the Web regarding e-commerce can be overwhelming, especially for the smaller customer. To provide ways for contractors to locate what they need, 3M’s information may appear on a portal operated by another firm. For example, electrical contractors looking for products can visit the Web site at www.4specs.com. This site describes itself as “The Internet Directory for Specified Construction Products.” There contractors would find a list of the 16 divisions of a construction specification, with No. 16 being “electrical.” A click on that option explodes the subsections and another click brings up companies for any subsection. 3M Electrical Products Division is one of many listed. Here the listing “3M Electrical Products Division” links to a 3M site. This site will allow anyone access to the 3M products catalog, along with other useful information.

Although 3M sees the Internet is another way of selling, participating in e-commerce doesn’t mean 3M is neglecting standard distributors. They emphasize direct delivery of information to customers because their sales policy guarantees technical support, and they want to be sure to provide the needed services. However, an organization that wants to sell direct on the Internet is Affiliated Distributors, which set up “the distribution industry’s most complete e-business portal site,” www.supplyForce.com. This company amassed a $400 million annual sales volume by absorbing A-D’s national accounts and A-D Northeast, a regional provider of “integrated supply solutions.”

Overall, the combination of automated procurement and participating distributor’s order management platforms may drive down supply channel costs. Among the A-D members noted, Crum Electric Supply’s president, Dave Crum, said, “The supplyForce.com vision of developing an Internet-based technology to connect the largest fulfillment organization to our customers is very compelling. It is a bold move necessary to simplify the supply chain process, taking cost and confusion out of the system for the benefit of customers and suppliers alike.”

So, if you are not yet online or don’t use your connection for maximum Internet benefit, pictured here are two sites to check out and vote up or down by your participation.

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of the C-E-C Group in Springfield, Va. He can be reached at (703) 321-9268, or by e-mail at lewtag@aol.com. GREENWOOD has been a lecturer with the University of Maine’s Department of Sociology for 13 years. She can be reached at susanfg@maine.edu or (207) 581-2394.