The site launched by the London-based company in October, was considered so innovative by European standards it won British Telecom's Electronic Commerce award the month of its debut.
Passing up roadblocks
But on a continent wracked with roadblocks to Web development, Thomas Miller's achievement is the exception rather than the rule.
"Right now, all our competitors have marketing-only sites," says Mark Holford, the insurer's information strategist. "We're really ahead of the game."
So it goes on the European cyber front, where political, econ-omic and cultural fragmentation -- not to mention long-entrenched corporate monopolies -- play key roles in hampering online commerce.
Multinational companies trying to develop a pan-European presence face a laundry list of challenges: Differences in language, currency, distribution channels, security and Internet usage, to name a few.
"Corporate Europe is a good 12 to 18 months behind the U.S.," says Steve Smith, president of iXL London, a branch of the Atlanta-based Web developer iXL Group.
European companies months behind
Indeed, at a time when U.S. multinationals are spending lavishly to erect second-generation business-to-business Web empires, most European companies are just scraping together budgets to set up online brochures. In rare cases like Thomas Miller, they're making the leap to database publishing or online ordering.
But this is changing. Free-market forces in the European Union, most notably telecommunications deregulation, are set to ignite online commerce in the next 12 months.
"1998 will be a big year, with telecom competition the major growth catalyst," predicts Rob Agee, author of the new Cowles/Simba Information report "International Online Markets: Strategic Outlook & Forecast."
The report pegs Europe's Internet/online subscriber population at 14 million in 1996. That number is expected to top 35 million by 2001, a 26% compound annual increase as competition and European unification take hold.
Moreover, the b-to-b market is perking up: Businesses spent almost $7 billion to buy information online in 1997, with "the U.K. leading Germany by a three-to-one margin," says Mr. Agee.
Corporate marketers in the most active European Web nations -- Germany, France and the U.K. -- have been laying the foundation for b-to-b commerce as far back as last April, according to a Gallup survey of 603 board-level executives.
70% using the Web
Almost 70% of those polled said they were already using the Web to communicate with their customers online. An equal number said their Web ventures were worth the investment, and more than half said they expected to allocate more funds for Internet development in the subsequent 12 months.
Germany leads the pack, with highest percentage of Net-connected companies -- 74% -- followed by 70% in the U.K. and 55% in France.
Suppliers are already jockeying for position in this largely untapped market. New-media consultants Jupiter Communications, New York, and Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., plan to open major offices on the continent early this year.
Meanwhile, Web developers are banding together with their global counterparts to build their European networks. And U.S. technology providers such as IBM Corp. and Cisco Systems are fielding an increasing number of requests from corporate marketers.
"After working at this for two years, just now I'm seeing a lot of companies planning for electronic commerce in 1998," says Arjen Soetekouw, a sales executive for IBM's E-Business Solutions unit in the Netherlands.
Most of the action originates with U.S. companies such as Dell Computer Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., IBM and others, which are expanding their Web businesses into Europe.
"They already have their online acts together," says Suzan Nolan, president of Bluesky International, a Paris-based Web developer.
Paving the way
But a handful of local companies are paving the way for those to come. In addition to Thomas Miller, the examples repeatedly cited by local analysts and Web developers include the Dutch Rabobank, which some claim rivals Wells Fargo's; Spain's Santander Open Bank; and Siemens Nixdorf's Trusted Web, which promotes the company's intranet security.
A vast number of European companies are eyeing 1998 as the year of e-commerce. But compared with U.S. companies, marketers are still cautious about their outlays. The average corporate Web budget currently ranges from $25,000 to $75,000, according to Web developers.
Thomas Miller, for example, spent about $50,000 to develop its site, which uses an IBM AS/400 database and a Lotus Domino server.
Still, European financial services companies, car manufacturers and others on the leading edge have been known to shell out anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million, or more.
The average company, however, is not only hampered by lower budgets but higher development costs.
Says Bluesky's Ms. Nolan, plain HTML programming runs $70 to $100 per hour, CGI programming ranges from $125 to $300 per hour and Web design can top $1,000 per day.
Not surprisingly, most of these dollars are going to the basics -- strategy and technology.
"The money gets eaten up pretty fast," says Ms. Nolan. "That's why I build all big projects in the U.S."