Johnstone Supply is in the final stages of a plan to link al 250 independently owned stores via the Internet.

Johnstone Supply is in the final stages of a plan to link all 250 independently owned stores via the Internet. Each store will have a Web storefront that can be customized for its local market area, as well as an online product catalog created and maintained by the corporate office.

Depending on the level of technology in each store, Web storefronts may include specific customer pricing, product availability and customer history tracking.

"In a co-op, our strengths can also be our weaknesses," said Johnstone President Gary Daniels. "Individual ownership gives store owners quite a bit of freedom. However, the same level of technology does not exist in every store. Connectivity was our biggest problem setting this program up as we dealt with 130 different computer systems."

Johnstone began developing this project about four years ago, Daniels said. With 16,000 items, the company saw a need for an online catalog. A task force consisting of storeowners, corporate staff and contractor customers was established and has been involved in every aspect of the project.

"Timing was important," he explained. "We wanted to make sure that the right technology was in place for our customers."

About 10 owners have been testing the online ordering system for about a year. In late September, Johnstone rolled out the online catalog and storefronts to its members at the co-op's annual members' meeting.

"Support from our members is key to the success of this project," Daniels said. "We had four different training sessions with about 75 owners in each session. In addition, we had a booth on the show floor that was constantly barraged with members wanting information about the site. We got a lot of good suggestions for phase two of the project, which will add enhancements to the site mid-2001."

The site is expected to go live by late fall of this year.

Daniels is quick to point out that the Internet won't isolate Johnstone from its customers. While contractor customers will be able to order product online, customer-service issues will still be handled on the phone or face-to-face.

"This site doesn't remove us from the personal touch at the counter," Daniels said. "That one-to-one contact is crucial to our business." But he doesn't completely rule out online customer service in the future, either.

The bottom line for Daniels and Johnstone Supply is doing everything possible to be a value-added distributor.

"We have two customers -- our stores and our suppliers," he said. "If we're not providing value-enhanced service to our customers, they're not going to have a need for us."