Marketers turning to off-the-shelf e-commerce ware

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Commerce-enable your Web site in less than 60 days!" claims one new e-commerce company. "Try before you buy!" offers another.

It's the kind of hype one would expect from purveyors of weight loss pills and multilevel marketing schemes. But come-ons like these are becoming commonplace in the white-hot e-commerce packaged application market.

And corporations -- anxious to jump-start their Web businesses -- are biting.

"Time-to-market is the best way to maximize ROI (return on investment) these days. It's about whoever gets there quickest," says Jimmy Hale, director of Web services for Stamford, Conn.-based GTE Corp., which is buying, rather than building, e-commerce components for the first time.

Easier way out

Speed is so critical that large companies are scrapping homegrown applications entirely, and replacing them with faster, turnkey solutions, says Chris Stevens, senior analyst for electronic commerce at Boston-based Aberdeen Group, a computer industry market research, analysis and consulting organization.

"Months behind schedule and $2 million in the hole, many companies are looking for ways to stop the pain," Mr. Stevens says.

Indeed, packaged applications are the e-commerce hot product of 1998. Affordable, scalable and flexible, they're winning the buy vs. build debate with best-of-breed solutions at a fraction of the in-house price.

But buyers must beware. As more products, promotions and promises flood this nascent market, it's getting harder for companies to cut through the hype.

Currently, more than 20 providers are hyping sell-side, buy-side and supply-chain-management solutions, up from 10 in 1997, according to Current Analysis, a Sterling, Va.-based consulting firm.

Starting prices range from $5,000 for plug-and-play software to $125,000 for mission-critical, enterprise-wide solutions.

The low-end products have been snapped up by companies such as Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes, which rushed its office supply catalog online at minimal cost.

"We chose Microsoft Site Server as a quick and dirty way to get up without having to do a lot in-house. It wasn't meant to be a long-term solution," says Susan Garvey, product marketing manager at Pitney Bowes. "When volume gets higher, we'll probably bring this all in-house."

High-end solutions have been better bets for companies requiring more robust, scalable and long-term systems to migrate supply chains online. Vendors in this space first help companies process-map a commerce solution, then assemble it from a library of preprogrammed modules.

Speed, flexibility, savings

The beauty of this approach is its flexibility. As your requirements change or upgrades are released, these building blocks can be replaced without skipping a beat.

"It's like changing a flat tire while the car's still moving," says Scott Smith, principal analyst at Current Analysis.

More important, these solutions slash development time and costs in half. US West Communications, Denver, set up a supply chain-based site in four months using Redwood City, Calif.-based Broadvision's One-to-One application server; it would have taken one year to build it in-house.

Office products middleman Boise Cascade, Boise, Idaho, says it expects to slash development costs of its supply chain system 60% by replacing its homegrown application with Netscape's OrderXpert Seller. And MR&S, a $100 million PC integrator based in Manalapan, N.J., spent only 90 days and $250,000 launching an online ordering system using Rockville, Md.-based SpaceWorks' turnkey application, instead of nine months and $700,000 creating it from scratch.

"Our customers told us online ordering was a top priority, so we had to get up fast or lose our competitive edge," says Bill Santos, VP-technology services at MR&S.

Even established e-commerce marketers such as AMP, Harrisburg, Pa., are selectively replacing pieces of homegrown online catalog and ordering systems with commercially available packages.

"We paid the price of being a pioneer," says Jim Kessler, global director of electronic commerce at AMP. "The software tools available today could have saved us 30% to 50% in initial development costs."

Some shortcomings

For all its promise, however, off-the-shelf software has its shortcomings.

"There's a big difference between what companies say they'll do and what they actually deliver," says David Perry, president-CEO of Chemdex, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based online distributor of bioscience products. Chemdex tested and evaluated several offerings before selecting Connect's sell-side solution. "That was no small effort," Mr. Perry adds.

Of more concern are the hidden costs.

"Most applications on the market today are 10% to 50% solutions," says Alyse Terhune, research director for Gartner Group, the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm.

With prices for the software topping $100,000, "you'll pay an additional five times their purchase price just to customize them for your company," Ms. Terhune says.

Liz Sara, VP-marketing for SpaceWorks, agrees.

"Our customers typically pay an average $400,000, between the license fee, integration with back end and customization of the front end," she says. The software itself lists for $100,000.

Traditional supply chain management vendors, such as Walldorf, Germany-based SAP and Reston, Va.-based Baan USA, are jumping into this space through partnerships, mergers or acquisitions. Broadvision, for one, is partnering with more than 20 systems integrators to bring these best-of-breed solutions into the enterprise resource planning/supply chain management arena.

"These partnerships allow companies to standardize and integrate development across a company against one application, which ultimately decreases time to market," says Sarah Vaughn, VP-corporate marketing at Broadvision.

New market, risky business

Still, corporate marketers must remember they're buying mission-critical software and services from young, often financially strapped vendors.

"InterWorld (New York) and Broadvision are the winning names today, but they're still new and wet," warns Aberdeen's Mr. Stevens.

Despite the volatility -- many companies are likely to fold or be acquired in the next 18 months -- corporate marketers shouldn't wait for the big players to enter.

"It could take two years for these products to mature," says Gartner's Ms. Terhune. "The way this market is going, you've got to put a stake in the ground -- now."

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