Air Force Superstore lets users click and compare IT products

Air Force Superstore lets users click and compare IT products

Site spans more than 30 contract vehicles to offer users fast comparisons on features and prices

By Kevin McCaney

GCN Staff

The Air Force Standard Systems Group has added comparison shopping to its online Air Force Information Technology Superstore.

The Superstore site, operated by SSG's Commercial IT, Product Area Directorate, last month introduced the process, which compares prices and features for desktop and notebook PCs and servers across more than 30 contract vehicles.

The goal was fairly simple: save time and money, CIT-PAD chief information officer Marvin Griffin said. 'We can load all of our CIT-PAD vendors into a single Oracle database and can configure it according to desktops, laptops and servers,' he said. 'It's an enormous time savings.'

Users who go to the Superstore site, at www.itsuperstore.af.mil, can find any product sold through CIT-PAD and get comparisons on PCs and servers by clicking on the Product Compare button on the site's home page. If they select, say, desktop PCs, they will get a menu of processor speeds; click on a speed, and they can compare specifications and prices on all the available PCs running at that processor speed.

When a user decides to buy, the Superstore site sends the order to the vendor, which takes it from there. 'But for the shopper, it is a single shopping experience,' Griffin said.

NIC Commerce Inc. of Reston, Va., customized the application for CIT-PAD. The company, a subsidiary of National Information Consortium Inc. of Overland Park, Kan., that handles electronic procurement products, in late April changed its name from eFed. The software used by CIT-PAD as well as other agencies, including the Navy, NASA and the General Services Administration, still goes by the eFed name.

The data's home

The price application taps an Oracle8 database hosted by a Sun UltraSparc quad-processor server running SunSoft Solaris 7, said Russell Oechsner, director of professional services for NIC Commerce.

The site itself uses a 500-MHz Dell Xeon server with 1G of RAM and four 9G RAID hard drives running Microsoft Windows 2000 and Microsoft SQL Server 7.0.

SSG at the Gunter Annex of Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., handles acquisition, development and maintenance of standard systems for the Air Force and other Defense agencies. The Superstore site is targeted mostly for credit card purchases''what I call the low- to mid-hanging fruit category,' Oechsner said'although it can produce procurement forms for buyers who need them.

In addition to product comparisons, the site can handle requests for quotes and spot pricing, Griffin said. A user who can't find a product on the site can type in a free-form request, which is then e-mailed to vendors. And if the value of a buyer's online shopping basket grows to about $50,000, the site will forward the basket to the vendor, which can consider offering a volume discount or other price reduction, he said.

The system, Griffin said, serves to 'put end users in touch with vendors, while CIT-PAD can oversee the whole process.'

Vendors submit information via Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, which are then converted to Extensible Markup Language and loaded into the system, Oechsner said.

Vendors also can update prices and specifications, which, because the comparison screens list products in order of the lowest prices, can sometimes lead to price wars that benefit buyers, Griffin said.

In its first month of operation, the site saw a lot of activity, Griffin said, though some of it was window shopping. The site as of early June had processed only about 30 orders totaling $60,000 or $70,000. But he expected business to pick up as the federal government gets into its summer buying season.

CIT-PAD handles well over $500 million in purchases each year, and is on target to reach $600 million this year, Griffin said. He expects online purchases to eventually become of the buying method of choice.

'The goal is to drive all the orders through the Superstore'when the Superstore is ready for that,' he said. That process will take time, he added, as vendors are added to the site and paper processes are eliminated.

One of CIT-PAD's goals for the site is to let users configure PCs and servers to their own specifications and then see a comparison. Comparisons are now set up according to processor speeds. Users can click a button to customize a machine, but have to separately customize any other PC or server they want to compare.

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