This is the second of three columns dealing with industry distributors and what they are doing on e-commerce. This column deals with WESCO Distribution, one of the biggest electrical distributors in the world; Vanguard Group, a consortium of independent distributors who specialize in the industry market; and a new “NetPricer” offering from ElectricSmarts.com.

“We got way out in front of a target that wasn’t moving,” said Russ Lambert, director of e-commerce at WESCO. The company was lured by the dot-com excitement in the wrong direction—trying to enable contractors to buy online.

So now WESCO has tacked with the wind. According to Lambert, there’s been a major push in contractor use of the Internet (but not for purchasing) over the past 36 months. While 43 percent of the industry was using the Internet three years ago, now it is 60 percent.

And, Lambert said, more is coming. “There’s going to be a continuation of this very rapid growth in informational uses of the Internet,” he said. “What a contractor wants is help with information—that’s at the top of the list. Next, he’d like help with document management—moving orders around.

“From one perspective, that’s all to the good. This is low-risk use of the Internet. We’re not talking about ordering online. You don’t have to worry about security measures.

“In our experience, contractors—in fact, those in the industry who are over 25 years of age—would rather look at a printed commercial document. The feeling about this is, ‘I’m not sure I want that in electronic form, where it can be tampered with.’

“To sum up, contractors want information, they do not want to do transactions.”

Where WESCO had put a great deal of effort into making transactions possible, now the company is loading its site with information and resources. “Ugly’s Guide” is now online at the company’s site. WesCalc is also available to help with job figuring.

“We call this e-tools for today’s contractors,” said Lambert. “OK, they don’t want to buy light bulbs online. But they might want to use a handy tool to calculate quickly how many fixtures they need.”

One place where WESCO got far ahead of the pack is in handheld online ordering. The company has worked to get the time needed to order with a handheld Personal Digital Assistant down to a benchmark of about 10 minutes. Thus far, it’s cut the time from a half hour to 17 minutes.

“We were way ahead, and the contractors [with whom WESCO has tested the handheld] liked the technology,” said Lambert. “We’ve put it on hold for now. Contractors just are not ready to move to transactions via the Internet. When they do, we’ll be ready for them.”

WESCO’s tools and informational resources can be found at www.wescodist.com.

When Allen-Bradley pioneered in e-commerce with SourceAlliance.com (now out of business), a group of A-B distributors took a look and decided there were other Web projects to tackle. These 18 large regional distributors banded together to form the Vanguard Distribution Group, a national combine.

When SourceAlliance disappeared, Vanguard was still in the formative stages. Now, the group enterprise is well on its way to an end goal.

“These distributors banded together to co-invest in Web site tools, e-business and e-communication technology,” said Neil Gillespie, president of Vanguard. “Each member has its own individual e-commerce engines. What we are putting up is the informational, not the e-commerce, part of each member’s Web site.”

As of February, 12 of the 18 Vanguard members each had an information-rich site up and running. “The hit for contractors is the communities page,” said Gillespie. “They like all of the links we have, the articles, the contractor news. It’s really a local ‘my Yahoo!-type’ page, with contractor-relevant subjects.”

Members of Vanguard include San Diego’s OneSource, Rumsey of Philadelphia and Van Meter Industrial of Iowa.

“The group’s mission is to make each distributor the most effective in the local markets,” said Gillespie. There is an e-commerce buying solution for national accounts under discussion, but when that is pursued, it will be a separate corporation.

While you need to be a customer of the individual distributors to win a password and gain access to the Vanguard-provided informational material, you can see if your local A-B distributor is a member by going to www.vanguarddistribution.com. EC

SALIMANDO, a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, can be reached at jsali@cris.com.