King Wire's Bob Dorfman is intent on making a reality of his vision for purchasing wire and cable via the Web: Load up a Web site with value-added services and make purchasing products insanely easy.

Think about all of the variables you have to factor in before buying a reel of wire. Type of insulation. Copper or aluminum. Solid or stranded. National Electrical Code requirements. Shielding. Length.

Now think about how much easier it would be if you could just plug in these variables while online and purchase wire much like you buy a book at www.amazon.com. That's the concept on which King Wire's Bob Dorfman built the company's online purchasing system, which goes live later this month. The president of the Chicago, Ill.-based King Wire, Inc. used his 30-plus years of experience in the wire and cable business to guide the development of an online purchasing tool that he believes is the first of its kind in the wire and cable industry. The system blends software developed by Rubicon, Inc., Chicago, Ill., a specialist in inventory management for wire and cable distributors, and Falcon Software Co., Inc., Victoria, British Columbia, a specialist in Web-site design.

"We are out to solve wire and cable problems immediately at a competitive price," says Dorfman. "I wanted to bring speed of information to the industry, exact accuracy and instant access. No more telephone, voice mail, faxing when ordering products.Inventory availability will be online, real-time, right now." To replace much of the traditional method of ordering wire and cable with a fully-functional online shopping tool, Dorfman peeled apart the "manual" purchasing process and automated its key features: establishing credit with the company; searching for inventory; getting quotes; placing orders; and tracking orders. Another major element of the development of the site was verifying that all of its elements worked flawlessly before unveiling it to the world. To do this, Dorfman hired a firm that audits Web sites with testing procedures before the launch date to ensure that all software and hardware would perform as expected (See "Site Specifics" on page 35). The testing process was intense, and included a review of all software related to King Wire's e-commerce business and an all-out assault by 100 Web surfers hitting the site at precisely the same time to see if it could withstand heavy usage.

Let's look at how the purchasing process works at www.kingwire.com. Registering and logging in. Wire and cable shoppers can search the site for products whether or not they actually register at the site as users. If they choose to search the site anonymously, they can check stock availability and get pricing quotes. However, by registering they get some very handy features, such as pricing discounts; order status and shipping information; history of items purchased; an account overview; aged-trial balance; payment/check history; unapplied cash; and a listing of open invoices. Customers must be authorized by their own companies to see much of this accounting information, such as the company's credit limit, payment performance and other financial data.

Searching for inventory. Users can search for inventory six different ways: by product group; characteristic; code name; part number; history of purchased items; and by retrieving saved quotes. Dorfman says that one of the site's most unique features is that registered users or anonymous users can retrieve past quotes for material.

After clicking on "KWI Products" on the site's home page, users just click on "Inventory Search" on the Inventory Search Page. They have four different methods of searching: by product group; characteristic search; code name search; and part-number search. After selecting a search mechanism and keying in the necessary product data, the product page will pop up, and the user can select the proper product category. A listing of products within that category will come up, and the user then just clicks on the part number of the desired product. The next screen requests the quantity required. Customers can also make special requests, such as "Four reels at 1,000 ft each."

Getting quotes. After plugging in this information and hitting the "Get Pricing" button, the Price Quotation appears with the price by unit of measurement, in total, and the availability by reel length at each location. The site also has a "sell up" feature that shows customers how buying the cable in a bigger reel actually costs less per foot. When users want to hold onto that price and quote, they click on "Add to Shopping Cart." The Shopping Cart page shows them the order-and the $20 discount they get for shopping online with King Wire. After hitting "Save Quotation, " the quotation is saved for 30 days. Users can retrieve the price quotations during that time by simply plugging in the quote number. While both end users and distributors are welcome at the site, Dorfman says distributors get special pricing when they register on the site.

Placing orders. If users want to place an order instead of getting a quote, they hit "Purchase Now" when the Shopping Cart page appears. If they are registered users, all of their billing information appears; if not, they can request a credit application at this point, or bill their order to a credit card. Customers who have logged in before have billing information shown automatically; when a customer completes a page but misses a field, that field will be highlighted in yellow. Customers then click on "Submit Order," and in a few seconds a confirmation notice confirming all of the ordering information pops up.

Tracking orders. Users can look up an order with the following options: all orders and invoices; open orders; customer purchase-order number; and item number. When the search function locates the order, for all search types except the item-number search, the search engine displays the King Wire order number; customer PO#; order date; status (shipped, on hold or open); shipped date; and shipment method. Searches by item-number show the King Wire order number; customer PO#; item number and description; the quantity order and the unit of measurement and the shipped date.

Added extras. In addition to the $20 discount for ordering online, King thanks customers in a unique way-it gives them one airline mile in American Airlines Advantage program for every $10 they purchase, as well as 250 free bonus miles when they first register to do business electronically. Dorfman says it's his way of thanking customers for their business.

"I am a people person, and buying wire from King Wire is the same as buying a book at amazon.com: The book is the same book anywhere you go. I wanted to do it along with what everybody in the wire industry says they do-solve problems, give good service, and have good products and low prices. That's what we are in business to do. Beyond that I wanted to thank customers, and I wanted customers to be loyal to me. People like miles. We buy miles and transfer the miles as orders are invoiced."

Hardware: RS/6000 computer system

Software: Operating system and utilities-IBM AIX 3.2.5. Applications-Rubicon's distribution system; AcuCobol (Cobol compiler/runtime platform for the Rubicon program; IQ (Query language); VSI (faxing software).

Current utilization: The RS/6000 has 64MB memory, a 4.4GB disk and 96 serial ports. Typical CPU usage during the day is 30%-40% (60%-70% idle). About 700MB of allocated disk space is free and another 1GB is unallocated.

Electronic commerce configuration: The e-commerce module consists of two parts. Perl CGI scripts that run on the Web server communicate to Cobol programs running on the application machine through the local network. The Web server and CGI portion of the application is running on an IBM 300GL with a 450MHZ Pentium II computer with 64MB of memory and an 8GB disk.

Firewall configuration: The Web server acts as a firewall and runs Linux software. It is configured not to route any packets between the internal and perimeter networks. The Web Server's Apache software is configured to handle requests from the internal network to the Internet; no protocols are directly proxied.

Web server application. While the server currently runs Apache software, King Wire plans to replace it with Stronghold (an SSL version of Apache) to provide for secure transmission of credit card information. T1 configuration: 1/2 T1 (12 channels).