All five major providers of electrical estimating software—Accubid, ConEst, McCormick Systems, Trade Power, and Vision Infosoft—are now involved in e-commerce.

This month’s column covers what three of them are doing; the March and April columns will discuss what TradePower (owner of Estimation) and Vision (which in 2000 spun off e-commerce venture Material Express) are planning.

ConEst

As of October’s “NECA Show,” ConEst had the only operational e-commerce interface. Company owner George Hague said it is part of Con Est V3.3.
ConEst has worked with distributor Dale Electric (New York) to work out the bugs. As configured, it works like this:

• Prepare a bid using ConEst’s estimating system. UPC codes are attached to the products in your estimate.

• E-mail your estimate to the distributor. Those UPS codes allow the distributor to easily give you prices back.

• Best of all, the system can be available (with participating distributors) on a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day basis.

Of course, you may not do business with Dale Electric; the Dale deal demonstrates what can be done. According to Hague, V3.3 can accommodate prices on a given bid from up to 10 distributors.

McCormick Systems

The company will introduce a new version of its software in 2002 that will allow contractors to “export” a product list—in Excel or HTML format—to its vendors.

“This information could be exported in Excel or HTML format, and the price request could then be e-mailed to the distributor or posted on a Web site,” a McCormick spokesperson said. “After the response comes back, with the cherry-picking [software function] already available, the contractor can then select which price to use.”

Accubid Systems

Owner Giovanni Marcelli said Accubid would already have a solution in place—a product called Quotation Analysis. But the company put it on a shelf in 1998, when the e-commerce craze hit.

“It diverted us,” he said. “We started talking to every one of the dot-coms. They were all telling us, if you join us, the few shares we’ll give you will soon be worth more than your entire company.

“In fact, we put together an e-commerce plan ourselves. We talked to venture capitalists. But then, even though we had the money lined up, we realized the cost of our plan would far exceed the benefits. I’m very glad we did not do it.”

So Marcelli and his developers revisited Quotation Analysis. The product was set to go into “beta” testing in December 2001, with a launch likely during 2002.
Essentially, it will create an extensible markup language (XML) interface, Marcelli said.

It’s supposed to be the ultimate solution for computer-to-computer translation. Here, XML will be used to help your estimate’s pricing needs be easily read by the distributor’s computer system.

“The distributor will have a copy of the program,” Marcelli said. “I don’t want to promise that we can accommodate every [distributor] system—translation of data is not an easy issue. Certain commodities are very easy to do, those with a UPC number. Others just are not.”

Security concerns are also involved. Might a distributor share your e-mailed estimate with one of your competitors? Accubid’s solution will incorporate a “self-addressed” feature that, Marcelli explained, means, “When I send you a file, it’s self-addressed to come back to me, and no one else.”

Common traits

At heart, each company envisions a user-friendly e-commerce interface. All that you, the contractor, would have to do is prepare your estimate, do a tiny bit of manipulation, then e-mail your bid to one or more distributors for pricing.

Additionally, they aren’t taking “a pound of flesh” out of contractor or distributor. In Con Est’s and McCormick’s cases, the distributors need not buy software, while in Accubid’s case, the distributor would have to buy it. In every case, there is neither a stiff monthly fee for distributors (or for contractors, besides the regular software support costs) nor per-transaction fees.

In sum, this is the lazy man’s way to e-commerce. If you’ve waited and done nothing during the 1999-2000 e-commerce craze, that “effort” is about to pay off.
Additionally, as Hague told customers on the “NECA Show” floor, before finalizing an estimate, you now can get real prices, in real time, from real distributors—instead of working with Trade Service’s prices and “factoring” them to get closer to reality. That might make a big difference to some contractors.

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