How easy-to-use are online-buying sites?

Contracting officials focus on price, configuration before buying online





Does how you buy make much difference in what you buy?


If it doesn’t yet, it will. The relatively recent advent of Web commerce and the
ability to buy General Services Administration products online has changed the landscape
of government purchasing.


Not only are agencies buying desktop and notebook systems via the Web, they also are
configuring complex servers by simply clicking through vendor Web sites.


Most users now just want price quotes for particular configurations, so accessibility
is crucial. But freedom to configure and purchase entire systems online will put heavy
pressure on vendors to set up sites that are secure and easy to use.


The GCN Lab recently took a look at the buying Web sites of four top government PC
vendors.


At each site, the lab went through the process of finding and configuring a $2,500
desktop PC, a $4,000 notebook, a $6,000 workstation and an $8,000 server.


The lab staff looked for the most computer it could buy with the imaginary dollars and
whether the sites made the buying process easy.


All four vendors—Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc. and
Micron Electronics Inc. of Nampa, Idaho—have special sections on their sites for
federal buys.


Two other leading PC vendors in the government market, IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard
Co., have government-oriented Web sites that do not permit online purchasing.


Compaq just opened its ordering site this summer. I expected Compaq to have learned
from others’ mistakes and to be on a par with veteran direct marketers such as Dell
and Gateway. But that was not the case.


One smart thing Compaq does is put its Online Store only two mouse clicks away from the
Compaq home page. You’ll have to bookmark the lengthy address, http://vcmprocr.compaq.com/ccn/gem.asp.


The site lists Compaq offerings by category.


When I selected desktop PCs, I was presented with a choice of six models and chose the
Deskpro EN Series.


At that point, things started to get confusing. The site displayed a list of 21
versions of the Deskpro EN in a range of prices. The model names, such as Deskpro EN
Series DT P350/S4.3C, reveal few clues as to what is included with each computer.


After studying the specifications of the different configurations, I decided that the
350 referred to a 350-MHz Pentium II processor, and the S4.3C meant a 4.3G SCSI hard
drive.


The specification lists leave much to be desired. Descriptions of features are cryptic,
and some descriptions fail to state hard drive size—a vital point.


Compaq’s Online Store causes further confusion by picturing all systems with a
monitor, even though one might not be included in the price. Nowhere does the site say
that a monitor was not included.


You can add items to your Compaq Online Store configuration, but they are separate
items, sometimes at open-market prices. Also, there are no consistency checks.


For example, you might try to specify four double in-line module RAM chips for a system
that has only three open DIMM slots.


The Compaq Online Store needs more flexibility and less confusion to become easier to
use.


Micron’s government site gives current configurations and approximate pricing for
PCs on GSA schedule contracts, but it has no way to order or configure them online.


A link states, “Configure your system,” but a disclaimer beneath says custom
configurations do not have GSA or discount pricing.


The configuration descriptions are clear and concise, however, and the prices of
options or features appear in a simple text listing. Micron should supply an online
calculator so a buyer can determine the exact price.


In contrast to these two online buying sites, Gateway’s and Dell’s sites
clicked, so to speak. That should come as no surprise, because both companies have been in
the business of Web selling for a long time.


Both use their Web sites to sell to private- and public-sector buyers. Solidly designed
electronic commerce systems let buyers purchase online with minimal fuss.


Dell and Gateway representatives have said they continually refine their sites to bring
them up to date, not only in content but also in design finesse.


Gateway’s GSA schedule site, like Compaq’s Online Store, meets the ideal of
being within two clicks of the home page. The full range of Gateway products appears with
a short list of specifications, after which you can configure a system to buy.


My only complaint about the product list is Gateway’s naming conventions. It is
difficult to immediately discern whether systems are desktop PCs, servers or notebooks.


On the configuration page for each system is a set of drop-down lists that includes
options and prices.


For example, next to Memory is a box that lists the standard memory amount; a drop-down
list shows the price difference for more or less memory. Some items have as many as
seven options to choose from.


Below that list is another with check boxes for options and features available as
open-market buys. This approach combines the best of standard GSA configurations with
open-market flexibility.


As a former database programmer, I always look for validation checks, which ensure that
a value entered in a field meets the expectations for what that value should be.
Gateway’s site, like Compaq’s, does not do field validation.


There was no warning except an asterisk and small print, for example, about specifying
a SCSI CD-ROM drive for a system that had no SCSI controller. Gateway should
highlight such text to draw attention to the warning.


Ideally, a site should automatically check for configuration errors and warn you about
them, rather than take a passive small-print approach.


Dell’s online buying site does nearly everything right.


Again, it takes only a click on two links to get to Dell’s GSA Online Store.


But there are many ways to view a potential system configuration. You can choose from
drop-down lists, check boxes or a read-only view for printing out.


Not only does the Dell site warn about possible configuration problems with a
Compatibility Check icon, it also flags configuration choices that could lead to delays in
building or shipping.


The Dell site offers open-market options under a Software and Add-ons icon on the main
Online Store page, but it does not point out that the given prices are open-market and not
GSA prices.


If Dell corrected this small oversight, its Online Store would exemplify what
government online buying should be.


As vendors and GSA strive to expand electronic commerce for government buyers, the
smartest sites will learn from online success stories. Dell has already adapted its
successful commercial approach to the federal market; others still have a ways to go.


Computers are commodities, and comparable models from different makers show little
performance difference. That has led government buyers to focus less on the hardware and
more on convenience, service and ease of purchasing.


The quality of online buying is the deciding factor in only a few purchases today, but
it will increase in importance.


With it will grow user pressure for online stores that are easier than current
sites. 

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