BUY LINES

States monitor progress of EMall project

Robert J. Sherry

Electronic commerce is growing at a geometric clip all over the world. Many people now routinely shop online for groceries, books'even cars.

But business-to-business and government-to-business is where the real e-commerce action is. Electronic initiatives have been deployed throughout the country, and online purchasing is proliferating among the states. Cooperative procurement efforts among states are also in the offing. In Massachusetts there's an important pilot project in cooperative buying called the multistate Electronic Mall.

In government generally, the mall metaphor is gaining popularity as a way of consolidating contracts into easy-to-browse Web destinations. A Defense Department e-mall is even designed to look like a row of storefronts.

Last fall, Massachusetts began testing a cooperative electronic purchasing program with four other states'Idaho, New York, Texas and Utah. Buyers from the five states can visit the EMall Web site, at emall.isa.us, view catalogs from participating suppliers and place orders.

The EMall pilot encompasses thousands of products, including information technology. The products come from 11 vendors, all of which had contracts with at least one of the participating states. The site notes that only contract-holding vendors can join the eEMall.

Originally, the pilot was slated to conclude in July. Given demand and interest, Massachusetts extended it through the end of September. Massachusetts officials say they will incorporate feedback from users as they build a production version of the eEMall.

Thirty-five states have been observing the program with an eye to joining it. Some probably have obstacles to overcome because of procurement laws and regulations.

No cities or counties have participated in the Bay State's EMall, although the Web site states they are eligible. More important, an electronic link to a legacy accounting system is not required to participate in the EMall.

Other states may have legal restrictions on pricing, such as so-called most-favored-customer pricing clauses.

Some states that see the EMall as a mainstream procurement tool and not just a curiosity may need to modify their existing statutes or regulations. This policy decision will be for those states' legislatures. But the prices generated by multistate volume purchasing'and the ability to compare prices and features of competing products'make further-EMall purchases highly desirable.

Robert J. Sherry is a partner in the law firm of McKenna & Cuneo LLP. He heads the government contracts practice in the firm's San Francisco office, counseling information technology companies on federal, state and local issues.

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