Upgrades put DOD EMall in the game

Upgrades put DOD EMall in the game

Program manager Don O'Brien says internal enhancements and expanded options will draw more customers to Defense's EMall.

In 1999, Congress ordered the Defense Department to develop a single Web portal for e-commerce. If Don O'Brien has his way, that mandate will be met by September.

O'Brien, the DOD EMall program manager, hopes the installation of EMall Version 5.3 will close the huge disconnect Defense now faces by giving users one log in and password for any service's site.

EMall officials hired PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of New York to develop and integrate the portal, from which military and civilian buyers can get off-the-shelf products and some services from registered Defense vendors. Officials hope the integration will fulfill Section 232 of the Defense Authorization Act of 1999.

'This will be a big step toward realizing our vision' of a single entry point for Internet ordering, O'Brien said. 'You shouldn't have to go to different places to find what you need to do your job.'

Even though completion is six months away, O'Brien likes to point out how far the site has come since its inception in 1997. Two of the biggest leaps forward came in the last eight months. The first was an upgrade of the site's search engine and transaction functions. The second came recently, when the Navy agreed to participate in EMall and stop developing its own e-commerce site.

O'Brien said both changes signify that EMall, which is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency, is ready to handle a significant portion of DOD, and even civilian, procurements.

O'Brien said the Navy contracts should be fully on-board by midmonth. 'I think if we can put them online without too many problems, it will show that this can be done fairly easily to the other services,' O'Brien said. 'We want people to use the EMall because it provides value and not because someone told them to use it.'

The addition of the Navy is significant because the site has been underutilized by the services. That $7 million in sales compares with sales of $25 billion on the General Services Administration schedule and the more than $600 million spent through the Air Force's IT Superstore last year.

The Navy is EMall's biggest customer; it bought 42 percent of the $7 million in goods and services sold through EMall last year.

The Air Force accounted for 16 percent of sales, the Army 14 percent, the Marines 2 percent and other DOD agencies 6 percent of all buys from the site. Civilian agencies combined to tally 20 percent of all buys last year, with the departments of Interior and Justice the largest civilian buyers.

O'Brien said a small marketing budget and a difficult process of registering vendors hindered EMall sales. The marketing budget won't change anytime soon, he said, but DLA recently streamlined the registration process. The new process lets vendors join EMall by submitting bids to one of three DLA supply center contracts.

That will increase the 35 vendor catalogs, 350 specific DLA national stock number contracts and the products in DLA's supply warehouses on the site, he said.

As for marketing, O'Brien said, two things should help: the addition of the Navy's wide reach, and the ability to market to niche customers such as chaplains and firefighters, who have more commercial-item needs.

O'Brien also plans to tout the Excellence.Gov award the EMall received recently from the CIO Council, the Industry Advisory Council and the E-Gov organization of Falls Church, Va.

Despite marketing constraints and a relatively small volume of sales, EMall's direct sales have tripled each year since 1997.

Meanwhile, O'Brien said, DLA has made significant enhancements to the portal.

Last June, DLA officials worked with EMall contractors Business Objects of San Jose, Calif., Partnet Inc. of Salt Lake City, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Raytheon Co., and the South Carolina Research Authority to upgrade the site.

Foremost, its five-year-old search engine'which EMall IT workers had downloaded off the Web'was replaced with Retrievalware, a search engine from Convera of Vienna, Va.

'The search capabilities are much quicker and more detailed,' O'Brien said. 'With the old search engine, basically all we could do was text searches. The new one allows us to use synonyms, spelling deviations and other advanced searches.'

Contractors also updated EMall's architecture so that it could rebuild the catalog cache each night, boosting search speeds. Now, when a buyer searches for a product, the search engine doesn't have to go out into the Internet for information from the vendor's catalog.

DLA also added a material receipt acknowledgment function that sends buyers a message that coincides with a scheduled delivery and solicits feedback.

Double and triple checks

'This allows us to make sure customers receive the products they ordered,' O'Brien said. 'We run constant checks of the data. We are not just a straight pass-through. We really follow up if they don't get what they ordered.'

EMall also will begin a pilot with Ariba Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., to let users go directly to Dell Computer Corp.'s site to configure and order computers. Once this pilot goes live this month, O'Brien said, other Ariba catalog customers will likely follow.

'Instead of re-creating a company's specialized site, we just connect to it through Ariba,' O'Brien said. 'It will be easier to expand the number of vendors using this capability as long as they have a DOD contractual vehicle.'

Other enhancements will include DOD training courses that users will be able to sign up and pay for online and a power shopping function that lets buyers import lists of items. The function will automatically find the items and put them into a shopping cart.

Finally, EMall will move to a common platform, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, later this year.

'DOD EMall customers are not shopping in the usual sense of the word,' O'Brien said. 'They are not browsing through catalogs making impulse purchases. They need something for their work, and we are providing a valuable way to get it.'

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