Market Makers: E-Commerce Levels the Playing Field
Internet marketplaces level the playing field, letting large and small companies interact with equal ease, and allowing small companies an electronic outlet for their products that they might not otherwise be able to afford.
"Half our suppliers do less than $10 million in annual sales," says David Perry, CEO of ChemDex. "They can't afford to invest in an e-commerce-enabled system that costs $4 million to $10 million. We've done it for them."
E-STEEL's CEO, Michael Levin, points out that bringing together buyers and sellers of all sizes benefits all players in his industry. "In all sides of this," he says, "there's a tremendous amount of productivity gained. It enables matches that wouldn't ordinarily be made - sellers can reach out to clients that might not have made sense before."
The biggest threat to your business might not look like a threat at all.
Maybe it's disguised as a technology company, handling your electronic orders. Or maybe it looks like an auction site, introducing your sales force to hard-to-find customers via the Web. Who knows, it might even be Microsoft or Intuit or companies that have little to do with your industry - on the surface. But one way or another, some company out there has launched an attack on the way your industry does business. And sooner or later, your company - and industry - will have to find ways to co-exist, cooperate or compete.
"E-business is going to transform entire industries," says Cathy Neuman, firmwide ebusiness leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Industries as diverse as trucking and insurance, steel and food service, are already undergoing significant transformations in their relationships with customers, suppliers, and other companies. And while these changes threaten the very existence of some companies, others are seeing their profits increase and their opportunities expand.
"It blows my mind when traditional companies say they'll move to the Web when it's ready in two or three years. It's ready now. It's happening now," says Chris Larsen, CEO of e-loan, an on-line mortgage company.
In the last 18 months, the key question behind electronic commerce has changed from "Who's making money?" to "Where do I sign up?"
Success stories like Dell's $10 million in Web sales a day, Cisco's 20 percent increase in productivity from streamlined Internet ordering processes, and the 1998-99 holiday season's explosion in Internet shopping - a record number of on-line shoppers spent $3.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 1998 - are making executives in every field sit up and take notice
"The important thing is to realize there is a segment of people who want to do business this way, and you have to respond to people's wishes," says Hussein Enan, CEO of InsWeb, a consumer shopping site for insurance policies.
Some 80 percent of CEOs expect the Internet to have a significant impact on their business, according to a 1998 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of Fortune 1000 CEOs. But a much smaller percentage understood just how this will transform their industry.
On some levels, a little skepticism makes sense. Why invest millions of dollars for an electronic ordering system? Even high profile Amazon.com isn't yet turning a profit. What earthly impact could Internet commerce have on a relatively low-tech industry like steel or trucking? Even five years from now, on-line retail won't exceed 6 percent of the total U.S. retail economy, according to Forrester Research.
On the other hand, Internet commerce has already irreversibly changed the way some industries work. Computer sales leader Compaq, spurred by Dell's staggering on-line sales figures and efficient make-to-order system, has had to reinvent its relationship with consumers and channels; recently, the company launched a Web site to sell computers directly to individuals, much to the chagrin of its dealers. Barnes & Noble hasn't just put up a Web site to compete with Amazon.com: in a move toward collapsing the supply chain, the company recently purchased Ingram Books, the world's largest book distributor. And venture capital is flowing into on-line commerce ventures at 50 times the rate of content sites, according to Andy Zimmerman, global leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers's InfoComm group.
Creating New Markets
Right now, electronic commerce companies - some starting from scratch, others backed by industry leaders - are changing the way businesses buy from each other. And that means far more than sending an e-mail instead of a fax. Business-to-business electronic ventures are creating new revenue sources, streamlining business processes, and opening up new markets.
While much ballyhooed consumer auction sites have attracted media attention, the big money's in business-to-business auctions, where new spot markets are appearing for everything from spare parts to government permits. Forrester predicts on-line business-to-business auctions will transact $52.6 billion by 2002, while total business-to-business on-line sales will reach a whopping $3.2 trillion by 2003 (see chart, below).
Some of the new spot markets are creating money from thin air - literally. National Transportation Exchange has created an electronic spot market for empty truck space. A trucker or dispatcher can enter the route they're traveling and be matched with shipments that fit the truck's individual characteristics. The site has given the entire trucking industry a way to increase its profitability (for more details on this site, see page 32).
"They've created a market out of nothing," says Varda Lief, an analyst at Forrester.
Many of the new marketplaces shift power to the buyer, by providing greater choice and information, or cutting out middlemen. MuniAuction, for instance, is transforming the market for municipal bonds. In the past, syndicators purchased large blocks of municipal bonds and resold them in smaller blocks. But MuniAuction allows buyers to purchase smaller blocks directly, leaving the syndicators out in the cold.
Industries are rapidly accepting these new ways of doing business, drawn by the promise of new customers, markets, and revenues.
"Two or three years ago, if you asked steel executives the role Internet marketing would play, you'd get a big goose egg. Now, 80 percent of merchant-level business people are hooked up to Internet commerce. It's a total shift from disbelief to acceptance," says Michael Levin, a 50-year steel veteran and chairman of e-STEEL, a brand new on-line marketplace for the steel industry.
E-STEEL provides a neutral marketplace - that is, an independent third-party site not aligned with steel companies - that allows buyers and sellers around the world to find trading partners, send requests, bid and negotiate prices, and complete on-line orders. E-STEEL's CEO Nathan Leight helped establish similar commodity market-places for the paper and textiles industries.
Levin expects the system to reduce paperwork and communications snafus during the ordering process. More importantly, though, he says that giving buyers and sellers greater choice in trading partners will lead to new business possibilities throughout the industry.
New Products and Services
E-commerce companies are also transforming industries by offering new products and services, many based on data and information collected on-line. While these companies seem innocent enough, some have the power to transform industry dynamics.
For instance, Palo Alto-based ChemDex created an on-line multivendor catalog of more than 200,000 research products - like virus antibodies - for scientists. But at the same time, the company's growing database of purchasing patterns in the scientific community enabled the company to create a direct marketing service for research suppliers announcing new products. Unlike suppliers, who only know what their customers are buying, ChemDex knows what scientists and institutions are buying from more than 100 vendors on their system. The company launched in late 1997 and currently processes nearly $150 million in transactions.
ChemDex holds tremendous potential to change important dynamics in the $15 billion business of life science research supplies. For suppliers, ChemDex's direct marketing service for product launches relieves research supply companies of the difficult task of finding the scientists who might be interested in a particular new product like a chemical reagent. This frees up supplier resources to focus on product development.
"In the traditional world, there was no easy way for a supplier to get new product information out to the scientist who wants it. This service lets small companies focus on innovation, which is what they do best, not marketing," says CEO David Perry. Of the 100 suppliers who list products on his site, Perry says that at least half are small companies with revenues below $10 million.
On the buyer side, scientists who now spend an estimated three to five hours a week thumbing through paper catalogs can order their supplies in 20 minutes or less, Perry says. In the past, the time-consuming process of finding a particular chemical reagent could take days or weeks, making scientists likely to order the first product they found, instead of considering a comprehensive set of choices.
"It used to be whoever had the biggest catalog got the order, but in the new world, it's whoever does the best job on product quality, purity, price, and reputation. There's a fundamental shift of power to the customer, who now has all the information needed to make a good purchase," Perry says.
Befriending the Consumer
Seller, beware. E-commerce ventures focused on consumers' needs are rapidly shifting power to the consumer in retail industries. Shopping bots, comparison sites, and on-line auctions like e-bay threaten to drive prices down and kill off mediocre products, changing consumer expectations and behavior in the real world as well as the virtual space.
"CEO's are very concerned that electronic commerce is going to commoditize their business. Now that end consumers can price shop, businesses need to look for ways to maintain customer loyalty and service to beat the price game," says Amy Wright, Americas theater leader for e-commerce at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
It's not just prices that consumers care about, though - it's product information. Shoppers are better informed than ever before thanks to a new breed of company devoted entirely to providing comprehensive customer information on-line. These companies, dubbed "infomediaries" by McKinsey Consulting partner John Hagel in his new book Net Worth, serve as customer advocates, helping them find the best deal for products like cars, plane tickets, insurance, and mortgages.
It's worth noting that these companies don't sell anything themselves. E-loan, an on-line mortgage company, doesn't sell loans. InsWeb, a site where consumers can compare insurance policies, doesn't sell insurance. These sites provide the information consumers need to make an educated decision. If the consumer wants to make a purchase, the site can arrange a sale, for which it may receive a percentage of the transaction or a fee for lead generation.
At e-loan, for instance, customers can find information on more than 50,000 loan products, putting them in a much better position to compare deals than in the past. The company gets rid of traditional loan agents, who had little incentive to find the consumer the best possible product, says e-loan's Larsen. By cutting out the loan agent, e-loan saves customers about $1,500 per loan.
In the last year, e-loan placed $4 billion worth of residential mortgage loans - putting e-loan ahead of Intuit and Microsoft, which are also offering on-line mortgage services. "Your whole business model has to be insanely focused on the customer or you won't survive. We structure our business model to favor the customer, not the bank," Larsen says.
Even shopping sites are becoming information brokers. Amazon.com's purchase of comparison shopping site Junglee last summer gives Amazon the ability to refer its customers to other sites for products Amazon doesn't carry. Amazon can help customers find what they're looking for and receive a transaction fee from the retailers. That means Amazon's not just a bookseller anymore: It's more like a direct marketer.
"People say, 'Amazon's market value is 10 times the value of the book industry. This seems insane.' But the value doesn't relate to the book industry: the market's saying Amazon has subscribers, just like AOL has subscribers, with a demonstrated willingness to spend money electronically," says PricewaterhouseCoopers's Zimmerman.
"The Internet is something that should be a component of every CEO's strategy," says e-STEEL's Levin. "I can't think of a business that won't be touched." PricewaterhouseCoopers's Wright points out that an electronic commerce strategy is an enterprise-wide undertaking. "Sometimes Web sites go up but the internal processes don't support electronic commerce and you lose the customer," she says. "Many departments need to be in synch to implement a solution - marketing, information technology, finance. Internet strategy groups today contain members from every division."
While a wholesale restructuring of core business processes may seem like overkill for a medium that's still in its infancy, the cost of waiting could be disastrous.
"Electronic commerce is like an avalanche," says Levin. "That cornice on the mountain sits and sits and one day it breaks off, and the whole mountainside goes with it. Down the road is too late."
THE e-COMMERCE EXPLOSION
Forrester Research expects business-to-business e-commerce revenues to jump from $109 billion in 1999 to $1.3 trillion by 2003 That year, B-to-B e-commerce is expected to account for 9% of total business sales, up from a mere .2% in 1997.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
Retail Spending Boom
According to Forrester...
$7.8 billion spent by 9 million households
$108 billion spent by 40 million households
RELATED ARTICLE: Types of Sites
Infomediary: Web-based brokers or intermediaries who help customers maximize the value of their personal data. Examples: E-loan matches consumer profiles to mortgage products. InsWeb provides quotes to insurance shoppers. Car buying sites like Auto-by-Tel and Microsoft Car Point provide comprehensive information on cars and can refer purchases to dealers.
Comparison site: These sites help buyers comparison shop. Most act as infomediaries, using information provided by the user to broker a sale. CompareNet provides consumers with detailed comparison information on electronic devices, cars, and other products. CompareNet also offers links to on-line retailers who sell the product: Retailers then pay CompareNet a lead generation fee if the consumer makes a purchase.
Shopping bots: Some comparison sites use shopping bots, which roam the Web in search of the best prices for the item you're seeking. Some search the entire Internet, while others look at a subset of sites with which the company has relationships.
Neutral marketplace: Buyers and sellers in an industry come together under the auspices of a third-party site with no vested interest in either side. Commodity auctions and independent auctions fall into this category. Private auctions, however, are run by one or several suppliers in an industry, excluding competitors. Not all neutral marketplaces are auction sites: Some, like ChemDex, serve as meta-catalogs, listing thousands of products from hundreds of suppliers.
Auction sites: Forrester Research breaks auction sites into three types:
* Commodity Auction Site: Neutral sites that make a market for commodities like natural gas and energy. E-STEEL and Altra Energy, a crude oil and natural gas exchange, are commodity sites.
* Independent Auction Site: Auction sites set up by independent auctioneers to handle surplus and first-run manufacturing goods. ONSALE lets participants bid on computers, consumer electronics, sporting goods, vacation packages, and more.
* Private Auction Site: These auctions are run by suppliers and serve dealer networks, in an attempt to compete with independent auctions. Ingram Micro, a $18.5 billion computer master distributor, runs an auction for its resellers.
Commerce aggregator: A high-traffic commerce site such as Amazon.com or CDNow that serves as a portal to other shopping sites. Commerce aggregators have attracted five times as much venture capital as have content sites in the last year, says PricewaterhouseCoopers's Andy Zimmerman, global leader of the firm's InfoComm group.
Portals: Content sites that refer users to other sites. Portals are usually either search engines like Yahoo! and Excite, or default starting pages like Netscape, MSN, and AOL. Six of the seven top ad-publishing sites are portals.
RELATED ARTICLE: Three Ways to Make Money in e-Commerce
* Refer Sales: Companies that serve as the customer's friend, providing complete and comprehensive purchase research, are well positioned to refer customers to a retail site. These companies don't sell products themselves: That might undermine their credibility with the customer. But they receive a fee for lead generation.
There's always the need for something between the consumer and the purchase. The intermediary role is shifting onto agents that are consumer-friendly rather than retail-friendly," says Trevor Traina, CFO of CompareNet, which provides comprehensive research information on research-intensive products like cell phones and automobiles.
* Repackage information: Instill Corp. in Paid Alto bills itself as a technology company, but its real stock in trade is information. On the surface, the company provides a way for restaurant suppliers to outsource their electronic transactions: through e-Store, Instill's purchasing system, suppliers and operators have an efficient way to conduct business over the Internet.
But the real advantage that Instill brings to the market is information. The company developed a set of standard codes for restaurant products like Heinz ketchup, and can report back to restaurant operators exactly how much ketchup and other products they're buying from all their suppliers across all their restaurants. Armed for the first time with a full picture of their supply needs, restaurants are in a much better position to negotiate bulk deals with suppliers. This information, which comes from the restaurant operators themselves, has, in turn, created a greater demand for e-Store's services.
"Now some operators of large chains who go out to negotiate a new contract with distributors say the distributor has to be able to accept orders through us," says Mack Tilling, CEO of Instill.
* Don't Make Money. Save Money: "A lot of the benefit of offering e-business platforms is in the area of lower cost of service and provisioning," says Andy Zimmerman, global leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers's InfoComm Group. Cisco's end-to-end electronic sales solution - which includes on-line ordering, and a fully integrated intranet/extranet that lets Cisco's outsourcing partners monitor orders and respond instantly to new requests - has increased Cisco's productivity by 20 percent and has saved the company an estimated $360 million.
RELATED ARTICLE: GAME PLAN: INSWEB'S STRATEGIES FOR INDUSTRY CHANGE
"The insurance industry has been doing business the same way for 250 years," says Hussein Enan, CEO of the Palo Alto, CA-based InsWeb.
He should know. A second-generation insurance executive, Enan worked in the insurance industry for 30 years before retiring in 1994. Retirement quickly bored him, so he tackled a new challenge - reinventing the insurance industry. In 1994, Enan founded InsWeb, a site that enables consumers in all 50 states to find and apply for auto, health, life, and other insurance policies. In setting up InsWeb, Enan adopted several key strategies to facilitate change:
Consumer-friendly revenue model: Unlike traditional insurance agents, who charge a percentage of the premium, InsWeb charges carriers a flat fee per lead, plus a fee for participating on the site. The flat fee means the company has nothing to gain by matching consumers with more expensive policies.
Phased staffing: Enan used consultants to help start up the company, while hiring permanent staff to maintain it. The strategy led to a smooth transition from concept to production.
"In the conceptual mode, you need bold, entrepreneurial people who can make quick decisions and aren't afraid of making a mistake. But in the development stage, you need process-oriented people to build up a particular area," he says.
Change management consulting: "I was surprised how quickly CEOs embraced it," he says.
But adapting stodgy insurance companies to the Web wasn't easy. Enan started a consulting group within InsWeb dedicated to helping insurance carriers streamline their business processes to facilitate Internet commerce.
"We work with the companies to overcome obstacles that they face. Bear in mind, every single one of these companies is huge. We help them recognize this is a new medium that's very fast moving. It's not business as usual. We show them how it's different, how it affects them in particular," Enan says.
Counsel the regulators: Enan hired a full-time employee to consult with industry regulators on Internet related issues.
"We work with the regulators to analyze the impact of different measures. They're enchanted with the Internet and want to make sure it develops properly. They see how it could drive costs down. We counsel them on what to be attentive to. We're surprised and pleased that our efforts with the regulators have paid off," he says.
RELATED ARTICLE: Anatomy of an e-commerce Site
Ready for show-and-tell? Here are screen shots from four e-commerce Web sites, along with some notes on what each offers its visitors. Call it hypertext hospitality.
It's a tall order to offer "complete and unbiased product information," but CompareNet doesn't shy away from the challenge. Says CEO Trevor Traina, "Visitors should expect to learn which product is right for them and where to buy that product on-line." The site is updated daily and provides a variety of tools for comparison and decision making.
Expected to launch late winter '99, e-STEEL- a neutral marketplace for steel - aims to take advantage of on-line capabilities by opening new domestic and international markets for both buyers and sellers, who must undergo an extensive qualification process. Efficiency's a key goal: e-STEEL is being designed to streamline all the steps involved in steel transactions and create more effective ways of communicating.
B to B: Chemdex
For those who've tired of buying books on-line and want a more combustible e-commerce purchase, Chemdex offers more than 140,000 biological chemicals and reagents. with a search engine to locate and compare them. Scientists can look for products by name or description, and can also specify suppliers to search.
With a database of 50,000 loan products, and rates updated multiple times a day, e-Loan's main goal, says CEO Chris Larsen, is to deliver complex information efficiently and quickly. Customers only have to input basic data to get instant results and see simple side-by-side product comparisons without being distracted by ads or multimedia bells and whistles, which e-Loan deliberately avoided in designing the site.
RELATED ARTICLE: Where Danger Lurks: The Unseen Competitor
"The scary thing is, your competitors now are people you don't even know about," says Cathy Neuman, firmwide e-business leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
There are two types of competition threatening to sneak up behind you. One is the "dot-com" company, the tiny but well-funded start-up that enters your business as a pure Internet play. E-loan, for example, is displacing loan brokers by letting consumers search and apply for policies themselves.
"The frustrating thing is that the market has no problem if a dot-com company is not making any money," Neuman says. "If the market's excited about them, they can make no money and be valued with a huge multiplier. But if you take an existing company, the market says, "I expect you to make money.'"
Then there are the established companies that might blindside you because they're not ever in your industry. At least, they weren't yesterday.
Take Microsoft. Microsoft Car Point is struggling to dominate Internet car sales. Expedia is Bill Gates's travel gambit. And Microsoft Home Advisor wants to sell you a mortgage. Sure, Microsoft's not a car company or a travel company or a bank. But companies in auto sales and travel and finance are being forced to adapt their businesses in response. Car manufacturers, for example, are dying to know what Microsoft knows about which consumers are looking for what kind of car.
If you think this can't happen to you, watch out. Neuman expects such industry convergence has just begun. "Entire industries will converge and new industries will develop you didn't think about before," she says.
So what do you do? Watch your back. "If I'm General Motors, I want to ask what are my car manufacturer competitors doing and how do I compare. Second, I need to ask who are the new entrants? They don't necessarily make cars, but they own the car space on the Internet," says PricewaterhouseCoopers's Andy Zimmerman.
RELATED ARTICLE: THEE CISCO KIDS
When Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers was first approached by his executives about hawking the company's Internet hardware online, he didn't hesitate for a minute. Sure, the risk was mighty: Cisco Systems wasn't looking to sell $20 hardcover books but rather complex configurations of routers and switches to business customers that can retail for as much as $1.5 million. And the cost of developing the site was substantial, ultimately reaching nearly $3 million. But even though it was 1995 and nobody was selling much of anything on-line, Chambers quickly comprehended the breathtaking benefits that can accrue to those courageous enough to dive into e-commerce head first.
The results of Cisco's efforts have been nothing short of miraculous - turning the little Web site that could into the virtual poster child for business-to-business electronic shopping. Through its site, Cisco Connection Online (www.Cisco.com), Cisco now sells more products over the Internet than any other business in the world. In fact, with an average order of $10,000, the company accounts for an astonishing one-third of all Internet-based commerce. Seventy-two percent of all the company's orders, more than $20 million each day, now come through the Internet - a figure projected to increase to 80 percent by July 1999. Its e-commerce revenues have leaped from $231 million during the third quarter of 1997 to $960 million during the same quarter one year later. And, along with the company's spirits, total revenues are soaring: Annual sales of this market leader ballooned from $69 million the year the company went public in 1990 to $846 billion in FY 98. Meanwhile, financial contributions traced to the Internet have topped $500 million a year.
Ironically, the transition to e-commerce has even helped the company turn what was once its biggest drawback into its biggest asset. "Before, we had a fairly inefficient sales process," explains Peter Solvik, the company's SVP of information services and chief information officer. "Because we have a complex, configurable product, the error rate in orders was about 35 percent." Those faulty orders - typically because buyers faxed in purchases for components that would not work with each other - led to long delays and, importantly, to a high level of customer dissatisfaction (as measured by an annual survey]. "The thinking was that we had something that was broken, and we had already had success in putting our technical support on-line, so why not sell our products on-line also?" Just two-and-a-half years later, clients say they actually prefer to buy from Cisco because their process has become so efficient; on-line purchasers are helped along by software that red-flags choices that won't work together.
In fact, says Solvik, it is precisely because e-commerce can lead to such purchasing efficiency that it will ultimately have its greatest impact in the business-to-business arena. "Unlike consumers who continually revisit their decision of whom to buy from, once a business chooses a partner to purchase from, they tend to stick with them. At that point, the main thing they are looking for is transactional efficiency." And as Cisco's customers have discovered, absolutely no other ordering system beats the 24-hour, easily accessible, up-to-date, fully informed, totally browsable, no-chattering efficiency of the Web. - Meryl Davids
RELATED ARTICLE: Getting entangled in a Web site is far less sticky when you remember the following pointers from Cisco's Peter Solvik:
* Strategy: "Companies need to decide if they want to be the early or mainstream adaptors. They need to make this plan consciously, not just ignore the Internet and then find it's a threat to them."
* Survey: "Keep tracking what's happening in your industry, what's happening on the Internet - not only e-commerce but also customer support and tracking."
* Teamwork: "We create a combination of teams that have the business and technical expertise to get the results. They work together; they're not threats to each other."
* Funding: "We have no big central pool of resources with a steering committee; each group manages how much they invest in technology and trade it off with other opportunities."
* Work force: "There's a shortage of both IT and business professionals that have experienced success stories. Either hiring or developing the best people in this area is tricky."
* Lifecycles: "Every 90 to 100 days it needs to be enhanced. The lifecycles are very short."
* CEOs: "CEOs need to be buying, trading stocks, doing a lot on the Internet. You need to experience it yourself. It's going to have a big impact on business."
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|Title Annotation:||growth of electronic commerce; includes related articles; Chief Executive Guide: Beyond the Internet|
|Publication:||Chief Executive (U.S.)|
|Date:||Mar 15, 1999|
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