E-commerce isn’t dead, it’s gone underground. Here’s a look at how some larger electrical distributors are working with contractors—far from the glare of the spotlight.

Russ Lambert, director of e-commerce at WESCO Distribution and former Fischbach & Moore employee, said his company is working with contractor customers on the handheld ordering system it introduced at last year’s NECA Show. As of late spring, the company was on “Revision 5” of its approach, with “Revision 6” expected to roll out at this year’s NECA Show (Oct. 21-23 in Washington, D.C.).

Why so many revisions? The company is trying to better fit the way contractors do business. There have been surprises.

Nimble smaller contractors

Smaller ECs adopt from-the-field hand-held ordering more easily. Larger contractors want WESCO to adapt to existing internal systems, but smaller ones do not have the processes (and purchasing managers) in place—and thus are faster to employ the handheld units.

The need for speed

It takes 10 minutes for someone in the field to order 10 items via telephone. While the distributor hopes to get there in the next year or so, Lambert said it generally takes a foreman with a handheld 25 to 30 minutes to order 10 items.

Logical ordering

Learning about how contractor personnel order led to system alterations. Previously, if a foreman paged down the handheld computer’s list and ordered conduit, he then had to go to another category to order straps and connectors. Now, WESCO’s system includes “goes with” lists––so after conduit is ordered, the accessories present themselves immediately.

Graybar: Using a variety of solutions

“The contractor community has its own mindset,” said Deb Weis, director of e-business for Graybar. “We’re going to have to have a variety of solutions.”

One major discovery Graybar has made––via its GraybarNet offering––is that contractors spend much more time checking product availability and pricing than they do buying online.

“There’s a lot more of the querying than buying,” Weis said. The company’s response has been to set up its system to maximize a contractor’s efficiency. If a contractor logs in, the system is set up so that, when he or she is seeking a given item, he or she checks availability at the local Graybar before checking other local branches.

With the “variety of solutions” approach, Graybar is busy on the e-commerce front, working with Buzzsaw.com, as well as TradePower and MaterialExpress. It’s also aware that larger contractors “are looking to automate and improve their processes,” Weis noted.

GE: Bar code bonanza

GE Supply’s approach has been to bring contractors to e-commerce at their own speed, which is to say, slowly. GE created an “intermediate” step, if you will, from no e-commerce to full e-commerce using bar codes.

The new 1,200-page GE Supply catalog is the biggest ever because every single item has a bar code printed next to it.

“Contractors can tab out sections of the catalog they need to use,” said Steve DiArchangel, the company’s construction e-marketing manager. “There’s an alternative: Using our back-end system, we’re able to tell what people’s buying habits are. We can create a custom catalog for a contractor, based on the items a company frequently purchases.”

This custom catalog would have products (with bar codes) regularly ordered by the contractor. To order, a purchasing agent or foreman would go to the GE Supply site, log in, scan codes of needed products, enter quantities, and place an electronic order.

“You demand a tremendous leap from what people are used to if you expect them to jump straight into e-business,” said DiArchangel. “This was an easy way to get people involved.”

GE’s effort includes engineering SupplyScan, a variant of the handheld Palm Pilot, which embodies a bar-code scanner.

“Using this technology, an electrician on a truck that uses a bin setup can scan a bar code on a bin, using the Palm,” said DiArchangel. “It links to gesupply.com. The electrician can enter a quantity and the order is done. But we don’t place the order—it just generates a quote.

“We learned in our Six Sigma process—by asking customers what they want—that contractor CEOs and their purchasing departments wanted us to make sure that purchasing sees everything before an order is placed.

“So that order placed by the guy on the truck is saved as a quote. The purchasing department reviews it, and then releases it.”

SALIMANDO (jsali@cris.com) is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer. He writes a monthly e-commerce column for www.tedmag.com.