You're pricing out a bid at 10 p.m. You need information and real numbers, not an answering machine.

It's 4:30 p.m., and you're finishing up a job. You have five places you need to be, but you need to order a number of things to finish up. Can you really afford to be put on hold by your distributor or to rush down there before they close.only to find they don't have what you need?

These scenarios play out every day for many of us. Workdays increasingly seem to start earlier and end later. Things come up unexpectedly all the time, and our ability to get the job done often depends on others-such as suppliers who may not always be there with information and solutions when you need them.

Enter the World Wide Web. It promises to become an invaluable sourcing and purchasing tool for an increasing number of electrical contractors and in-house electrical MRO staff. Accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Web is "always open," allowing people and companies to get real-time inventory and pricing information when it is convenient for them.

CLS Inc., Hartford, Conn., a $100 million-plus full-line electrical distributor, has invested considerable time and resources creating one of the industry's first Internet online ordering systems at www.clsco.com. "The benefit and value our Web-order-entry system provides to our customers is tremendous," said Bob Compagna, president of CLS.

"The only hurdle we face is convincing people how simple the system is to use," said Compagna.

With an online ordering system there's no software to buy; all you need is Web access. There are easy-to-follow instructions, and if users don't know what they want, they can search for it. Users can choose their preferred shipping option, review account information, and e-mail the distributor with any questions.

"I'd say in most cases, the whole transaction might take three to four minutes," said Compagna.

Distributors have been slow to embrace electronic commerce because of time, money, and resources involved, particularly in upgrading computer systems, according to Jim Lucy, chief editor of Electrical Wholesaling, CEE News' sister publication. While some distributors have begun to establish electronic data interchange (EDI) links with manufacturers, use CD-ROMs, and develop "informational" Web sites, virtually none have embraced the Internet to actually sell product.

"It's taken us more than two years to get to the point where we are comfortable with our Web ordering system," said Compagna. "Fortunately, we have people on our staff who understand technology. The key is the ability to quickly give the customer real-time information. You dial in. You know if what you need is available and what it will cost. Then, anytime you're ready, you order it, and we ship it."

Compagna believes the way electrical supplies and products are purchased-like many things-is going to change a great deal over the next few years. Many electricians-who, as a group, may not have had the time to get on the cutting-edge of technology-are getting increasingly comfortable with computers for estimating and project management. Electronic sourcing and ordering is the next natural step.

If overall trends are any indication, change will come to the electrical industry pretty quickly. Forrester Research, the nation's leading Internet research firm, predicts business-to-business Internet transactions in the United States will grow from $8 billion in 1997 to $327 billion by 2002. Another research firm, IDC/Link, projects the number of people with Web access will grow from approximately 60 million today to 550 million in just three years.

"Electricians typically operate on very tight margins, and lowering transaction costs is essential to profitability," said Compagna. "Time is one of their most valuable commodities. Anything we can do to help them save time, operate more efficiently, and better manage projects is of great value to them. For those who naturally resist change, I encourage them not to be intimidated by the technology. It's simply a tool that can make their jobs a whole lot easier."