Tales from the land of construction business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce can be amusing (or depressing). Here are reports from the field to kick off this first monthly E-C column for EC.

At the Architectural/Engineering/Con-struction (A/E/C) Systems 2000 Show June 6-8 in Washington, D.C., your humble reporter visited a contractor-oriented B2B dotcom’s booth. When asked if any electrical contractors use this system, a dotcom executive replied, “Yes, we are working with (a recognizable regional contractor).”

What is this contractor doing? “Well, we worked with Bob, the purchasing guy. He’s so sharp! On the first day, he put up a request for proposal (RFP) . . . without help or instruction from us!” Bob hadput out a list of materials his company needed, to test the dotcom’s system.

What happened? “Well, we had to tell Bob that we didn’t have any electrical suppliers on the system, to respond to his RFP. We’re trying to round some up right now.”

At the “Forbes E-Commerce for Construction” conference May 8-9 in San Francisco, speakers guessed how many dotcoms were chasing the construction industry. Figures coalesced around 174 and 214. One speaker—an e-commerce expert, if such a thing exists—approximated there might be next year: “Maybe seven. Or maybe another 100 or 200.”

At “Electric 2000” June 13-15 in New York, was (www.bestroute.com), a dotcom that will help contractors make better purchases of slow-moving products that the local distributor doesn’t always carry.

Another company––mobbed throughout the show––pitched a service in which you put the lighting part of a project together and let them handle it for you via the Internet (www.litemarket.com). All kinds of savings were claimed. Key to the pitch was “no obligation” . . . try us once, you’re not signing up for life, or even a second project.

Another company promoted “reverse auctions,” where a contractor posts a bill-of-materials for a job, with suppliers “bidding” prices to fill the order (www.buildingsuppliesweb.com).

In late June, a technologically savvy electrical distributors said, “We put order entry on the Web thinking the contractors would be the big users, but so far the most enthusiastic users are the panel builders.”

But is there substance to the B2B e-commerce concept for electrical contractors?

Maybe. Bill Elliott of Elliott Electric Supply (www.eesnet.com) in Nacogdoches, Texas, said: “We’re moving beyond the Web.” EES customers have been able to place orders online for five years, but Elliott didn’t gain big from it.

But . . .what is beyond the Web? The company’s barcoding system allows customers to place a standing order for certain goods. Participating customers scan barcodes of each product as used. Every night, the EES computer “polls” a customer-site PC to find out what was used. The next morning, an EES truck brings a replenishment of all products used the day before.

Asked if this service wasn’t aimed more at companies with on-site personnel (rather than contractors), Elliott said one of his six customers who’ve embraced this idea since introduction is a residential electrical contractor.

Elliott doesn’t just keep that contractor’s trucks well-stocked (according to customer-set standards). If the contractor’s employees use barcode scanners diligently, EES can give the contractor a daily report on which products were installed into which houses.

At a late-May meeting, Cliff Macaylo, a vice president at Fischbach & Moore (www.fmeinc.com), said he isn’t looking to cut materials prices via the Web. Working with two dotcoms, F&M wants to reduce the cost of acquiring products.

He says you accomplish that by boosting productivity, not price. There’s much more money in streamlining the process than there is in shaving the price of a list of items. So he’s cutting the number of distributors with which F&M works. He said “it’s too costly” to negotiate deals on every project with so many distributors.

Is your goal to lower the price of that wirenut, or to buy the wirenut more intelligently? Will the power of the computer be used to beat up on suppliers? Or is there a Bill Elliott in your neck of the woods, figuring out ways to capture your patronage with neat new ideas?

Don’t ignore e-commerce. But don’t feel that you’re behind the curve if you’re not already tied up with six dotcoms. Read the ads. Visit the Web sites. Go to the NECA Show and spend time in every dotcom’s booth.

Call it research. But don’t call it urgent.

SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer. He writes the Web Prowler column every other week, appearing only on the ECWeb site: www.ecmag.com.