The primary reason that 90% of contractors surf the Web is to find product information.

By now, plumbing-and-heating wholesalers are used to hearing from people inside and outside the industry that they're behind the curve when it comes to electronic technology. Up to this point, the reaction of many wholesalers seems to be, "So what?"

Plumbers and HVAC contractors generally haven't demanded EDI, electronic funds transfer and other ways to hook up with their distributors the way, say, some industrial end-users have. So many wholesalers haven't gone to the expense of investing in technology that most of their customers don't want.

Our research suggests that situation is changing. In an extensive survey of the readers of Contractor magazine, PHC contractors say they are ready to do electronic commerce with their distributors. Some already are doing it, but more often than not, they are waiting for wholesalers to catch up.

The survey shows that nearly 75% of respondents have access to the Internet. The primary reason that 90% of these contractors surf the Web is to find product information. Almost 66% say they use the Internet to access manufacturers' product catalogs.

But contractors are doing more than just looking. Almost 40% of respondents say they have purchased business equipment online. One-third have bought plumbing-and-heating supplies.

Those numbers will grow. Two-thirds of contractors cite tools as the products they would most likely buy online in the next year. HVAC products are cited by half the respondents. And more than 40% of plumbers say they will buy plumbing supplies online within a year.

Some wholesalers are taking the lead in EC by teaching contractors about the benefits of the new technology. These wholesalers are seeing advantages themselves in reducing errors and increasing efficiency. Incoming ASA President Don Maloney hopes to see those benefits soon. His company, Coburn Supply, was scheduled to begin beta testing of an EC site on Sept. 1.

Much of Coburn's research into its customers' readiness for EC came in face-to-face meetings earlier this year. But these contractors' feedback was much the same as in our more formal research. If a customer has children, he is on the Internet, Maloney says, who also has concluded that many contractors are smarter than wholesalers sometimes give them credit for.

Wholesalers typically respond when a customer demands a new product or service. The survey shows what some wholesalers already know: Contractors are demanding the capability to research and buy products over the Internet.