Should you buy online?

Whether or not online automation stores are a better way of doing business in the automation industry still remains to be seen. Since most companies introduced online stores within the last several months, it is too early to tell whether or not they can be considered successful endeavors. (See also, Control Engineering, April and May 1999, Cyberpage, on this topic.


Whether or not online automation stores are a better way of doing business in the automation industry still remains to be seen. Since most companies introduced online stores within the last several months, it is too early to tell whether or not they can be considered successful endeavors. (See also, Control Engineering , April and May 1999, Cyberpage, on this topic.)

E-commerce may seem to be the 'wave of the future' with huge potential savings in transaction costs, but many automation companies are finding it just as lucrative to continue doing business the 'old-fashioned way.'

When it comes to certain types of products, sometimes buying directly from the web isn't the best way to get exactly what is needed for the job. For example, would someone really feel comfortable buying an entire servo system online without any contact with an experienced salesperson who can make recommendations and provide the best costs? According to Chip McDaniel, marketing and communications manager for Automation Intelligence (Duluth, Ga.), the online shopping-cart method of sales doesn't make sense in this case.

Factors and examples

Automation Intelligence runs the online motion control center known as Like a large number of other companies out there, offers detailed product specs and recommendations for download, but requires contact with a representative to actually purchase the products. This human interaction allows for the best possible match of product to customer, according to Mr. McDaniel.

Another thing to consider is while engineers may specify or recommend, a purchasing department representative may take care of the actual transaction. Without adequate input and consultation, for many nonstandard products, the purchasing department might not always recognize the best product for the job at an online store.

In some situations, however, e-commerce could greatly enhance the buying process. Repeat orders, for example, could be sped up in this way, as well as orders that reflect an immediate need, or orders for smaller components and accessories, according to Mr. McDaniel.

'We couldn't believe engineers would wait until the last minute to order a servo system,' he says. Keeping track of customer orders and allowing customers to access past orders makes for a speedy transaction in situations like this, if the customer knows exactly what is needed.

Asked to highlight important future considerations for, Mr. McDaniel cited the ability to track shipments online as one of the top priorities, so that customers can determine exactly when their order will arrive. Also, tracking customers' past orders for reference can expedite repeat orders.

Which way is best?

Full online supply-chain integration to completely flatten inventory seems a ways off, but certainly many products can be sold effectively by allowing customers to purchase online. In some cases, however, it does make sense to evaluate the situation and determine if interaction with another person may help make the purchase easier.

When making a purchase, determining the most effective way to carry out the transaction should take into account what products are needed as well as the complexity and size of the project. Some items may be more convenient to purchase online, especially smaller components, or those purchased on a regular basis. Others may require further consultation with a salesperson to determine what is needed, especially if the project requires larger, more complex systems.

Companies considering setting up an online store should evaluate products that will be sold online and whether or not eliminating contact with live salespeople would be beneficial for customers. The same criteria should apply-product types and what sorts of projects they would be applied to-as well as other factors such as delivery methods and costs, product availability, and whether the product requires configuration specific to the customer.

If it's right for you...

There are many consulting agencies and Internet service providers that specialize in e-commerce solutions. If a company decides it can benefit from an online store, the first step in setting one up is to contact one of these agencies. To locate one in your area, visit the Electronic Commerce Guide at for links to many of the top e-commerce solution providers, as well as many other definitive e-commerce resources.

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Laura Zurawski, web editor

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