For product distributors, the Internet is something of a mixed blessing. It brings the prospect of greater efficiency and a reduction in costs, but also the potential for electronic trading that cuts out the all middle men except the pure logistics or the pure support operation.
But surely, in this age of fast-moving technology, single-digit gross margins and ultra-competitive practices, any new route to market, any way in which the distributor can add value, must be adopted without hesitation. Apparently, this is not the case, at least, not with most of the major distributors in the UK.
Most distributors have Web sites, but they do little more with them than provide basic information. One of the biggest, CHS, has yet to get its own site up and running in the UK.
Ideal Hardware is the one distributor that has made a major commitment to the Internet. It has had an extensive Web site for over a year with regularly updated contents and it has recently put its Profile electronic catalogue on the site.
Later this year, Ideal plans to put stock availability and electronic ordering on to the system, although it may not be the first to do this. Ingram already offers customer-specific availability and pricing through the Internet by providing Net access to its Caps systems. But dealers won?t be able to place Caps orders through the Internet until later this year.
Peter Bannon, senior marcoms executive at Ingram, says the addition of ordering won?t make that much difference. The main benefit is immediate access and ease of use. ?About 80 per cent of calls made to Ingram are on price and availability, only four per cent are orders. Caps is mainframe-based and fairly difficult to use ? the Internet system is a lot easier.?
For the dealer, using an electronic catalogue on the Net to price products and check availability will save time; for the distributor it should ensure orders are not missed because dealers simply can?t get though to check price and availability and reduce costs.
Ideal MD James Wickes is in no doubt about the potential of the Internet as a marketing tool and money-spinner. ?I think it?s an incredibly exciting area of the market at the moment. Anyone in distribution that does not get involved quite frankly needs their head examined,? he says.
But what does Ideal get out of putting so much effort into its Web site? Wickes says that in cost terms, now that Profile is on the site, it is easy to cost-justify. Also, he adds: ?We believe it is abut providing information and if we can do that then resellers will have more confidence in us. If they have confidence in us, they will come back to us.?
Certainly, among other distributors, Ideal?s work has been noted. Craig Peacock, one of the two Web masters at Northamber, says Ideal?s site is respec- ted for its technical content while Northamber?s is appreciated for its daily price updates.
The response to Northamber?s Web site has been encouraging, says Peacock. It was revamped in November and made simpler and quicker. Resellers like the new version, says Peacock, and use it for different reasons.
?We generally get two types of response. Some people like the clear presentation ? that tends to appeal to the sales side of the business. Others seem to like the Ideal approach, but I?d say that was more aimed at the technical side. I guess you have to get a mix of the two.?
Wickes says Northamber is, as far as he is aware, the only one of Ideal?s rivals that has made an effort to make its Web site useful for resellers and to publicise the site. This is an important aspect of Web publishing that is often forgotten by site owners. Resellers need to be told the service is there, otherwise they won?t go and look for it. And it is easy to be discouraged. Two months after relaunching its site, Northamber gets only just over 1,000 hits a month.
But if the site is good, the numbers will rise. Ideal has marketed its site continuously and now claims to get about 10,000 hits a week. Northamber?s site is certain to gain popularity if it continues its good work.
There is no telling how much of an effect it will have on sales or whether there is an effective return on the investment. This may be what is putting some distributors off, and we may not see much of an all-round improvement in distributor sites until the value of electronic stock checking, ordering and tracking has become apparent.
Northamber redesigned its Web site in November and, having listened to customer feedback, provided more product information and catalogue-based material.
The best feature of the site is the price list. This gives you an RRP for every product in the catalogue and the list is updated every day by a download from Northamber ?s mainframe.
The site is workman-like and simple. It is also pretty quick, and with Alta Vista and Yahoo close to hand, you can always find what you want promptly.
A simple front-page menu provides you with the option to go into company or financial information, to manufacturer information, to look at price lists and also gives you ways to provide feedback, make requests for information and features and comment on the site.
One particularly nice menu option is ?anything we get enough requests for?; which just about sums up the honesty of this site. It?s not glamorous and it?s not light-weight and it does not waste your time.
You might criticise the site for being too basic, but you could also praise it for not being fussy or over- elaborate. Further developments are under way. Northamber hopes to have its entire product catalogue available on the Internet site by the time this article is published and plans to provide a special search engine for it.
In spite of its URL, this site has a pan-European flavour. From the opening page you can select any one of 11 countries. So, good news if you have foreign subsidiaries or indeed, if you are a European-based reseller.
Aside from this, the site is simple. The front screen has four options that will tell you about Azlan, list the Euro- pean offices and give you a guided tour of products and Azlan Training.
At 20 January 1997, the product and services guide on this site was still the 1996 version. Happily, though, this is not just a page from which you bounce into vendor Web sites ? the information is from Azlan and it is comprehensive. Certainly as good as any spec sheet.
But there is no price listing and no email on the site. Nor is there any technical support so its use is limited to basic product information.
In the training section you can at least book a course and the list of courses supplied is very clear and comprehensive. The only disappointment is that, on the courses we tested, there were no courses scheduled for January or February (the last one listed was on 12 December 1996). But generally this is a neat section ? at least it would be if it were kept up to date.
Overall, there is much potential in Azlan?s site, but it does not go far enough as yet. It could be very useful and, with the training service booking facility, it has something other sites don?t offer.
For over a year, Ideal?s Web site has been one of the most admirable in the industry. It has recently undergone some changes and, most significantly, the company has placed its electronic catalogue, Profile, on the system and withdrawn the CD-Rom version.
In doing this, Ideal felt it could ask visitors for something in return, so now visitors are asked to state their identity, address and provide a user name and password for both the home page and for the Profile section.
The home page is elegantly designed, with five sections taking you into sales, news, service, media library and Profile. Navigation around the site is excellent, although the smart graphics can take a while to load.
The sales section in the Web site is excellent. Every month Ideal runs a market analysis based on key strategic technology areas that it has identified as being most crucial to its business. This is very specifically geared towards resellers. Also in sales, you can view white papers ? documents that go into depth on particular aspects of technology.
Spring board bounces you into the appropriate page on the appropriate vendor?s site to get product information, and Ideal also provides its own product data in this area, but if you have access to Profile, you hardly need this.
Finally, a focus of the week section gives details of weekly promotions and bundled offers. You can also get details of all Ideal?s marketing output such as its CD-Rom cyber seminars and videos, as well as the IT Network television programmes and magazine.
Other distributors can learn a lot from the Ideal site. It is well designed, useful and informative. By the time this article appears, Ideal will have improved the site further by adding some structured searching tools to the Profile section.
Ingram?s Web site is a world-wide site and, as it stands, this is not an exceptional site for UK resellers. But it promises to be very good in the future.
There is an electronic catalogue ? which you must be registered for as an Ingram customer ? and a home news section which gives details of promotions like Net Results 97 and the NT Fast Track programme.
Information about product promotions, training courses and customer services are also available. You can request presentation material or brochures through the in-depth library. There?s a ?what?s new? section that is quite neat, but this is one of the few areas open to just anyone.
You can?t simply log-on and start using the Ingram Web site, or at least, you can?t start using the catalogue section or the promotions area. You must identify yourself first. That means having an Ingram Micro customer number and, for some areas, a Caps account.
If you don?t have a Caps identity, then you have to call up and get one. Once you have this, though, you can get into Caps via the Internet to check stock availability and your own personal pricing terms. The only thing you can?t do at the moment is place an order.
Meanwhile, the Internet connection is, we are told, friendlier than the ordinary Caps terminal emulation, and it is useful for any resellers that need to get on to Caps from locations other than their usual terminals.
Some areas of the Ingram site, such as reseller services, are unprotected, and simply give information about what is available from Ingram. We had trouble accessing even these areas ? transfers were persistently interrupted. This may be something to do with the fact that we are dealing with a US-based server. Or it might just be our hardware!
Development of a dedicated UK site is well underway, but there is no guarantee about when it will be available. Later this year is the only date that can be given so far.
Ingram UK?s heart is clearly in the right place. If it can get more local content and make it easier for UK resellers to register, its site has lots of potential. The company is investing heavily in its UK Internet structure, so we should see some positive results.
Later this year Ingram plans to launch the UK site and offer a tailored service to registered users ? the server will tell users about developments in the product areas in which they are most interested. It is also looking at high-speed links into vendor sites, secure dealer pricing and database-driven applications.
The noises Ingram makes about the site are good, it?s just a question of delivering them now.
This, at least, is a UK site. It does not try to do too much, but there is not much up-to-date information either. On 20 January, when we visited, it had a Microsoft Office 97 update from 15 January and a Bay Networks announcement from 3 January on the front page.
These items link you into the vendors? sites ? instant and newsworthy if you?ve not seen it before, but otherwise not stunningly useful right now.
Beyond this is a separate section with a comprehensive set of links to vendor sites which works well. There are about 80 links here, and it would be a great site to bounce off for general research purposes. Search tools and email facilities are provided to make life easier, so really quite a lot of product information is available through the Frontline site.
Links to Frontline customer sites are also provided. This is presumably to encourage users to go to the dealer sites. Apparently this is a free link, as the page asks for customers to forward details for inclusion. If so, that can?t be bad.
The technical bulletin board is the most appealing part of the Frontline Web site. It provides a link to the support databases of Frontline and its vendors. This will never be a replacement for hotline technical support, but it is an excellent back-up to the service. It?s available 24-hours a day and it doesn?t refer you politely to the manual.
Frontline does not appear to be stopping anyone downloading any of the files, but does warn users that they won?t get help and that the download is at their own risk if they are not members of the company?s subscription support service.
Another service, the In Touch online ordering system, is also supported through this part of the site. But as we could not get in, it was not clear to what depth this was available via the Internet.
On the plus side, Frontline gives resellers access to a tremendous wealth of technical support information on its Web site ? that?s something most of the other broadline distributors fail to do.
While good-looking, it is also a very fast and unfussy site, and useful for collecting product data via vendor Web sites. But it is by no means a one-stop shop and, while there is email, there is no online stock checking or ordering service.
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