Sometimes it takes a little push to get you to do what you suspect you ought to do anyway.

Most distributors, if they're not already running headlong down the electronic-commerce path, are at the least beginning to realize that they won't be able to avoid it for long. Some still resist, but they're finding it harder all the time because of pressure from business partners who already have invested in the technology. Just ask the members of Affiliated Distributors, Inc. (A-D), the Wayne, Pa.-based buying/marketing group.

To much fanfare at the A-D North American meeting last October, Bill Weisberg, the group's president and chief executive, introduced a secure Internet-based service called A-D Net. The purpose of A-D Net is to connect A-D's staff, it's distributor affiliates, vendors and their reps. Through an electronic information system operating via e-mail and standard World Wide Web browser software, the various participants in A-D can file paperwork, track A-D programs, form discussion groups, gather news updates and perform many other functions in an entirely paperless environment.

In an elaborate multimedia presentation, Weisberg touted the wonders of the proposed system, then added the kicker: All A-D-related communications would be handled by e-mail and A-D Net beginning in mid-December. Any affiliate that failed to establish Internet access (e-mail and Web) and to file plans for 1998 A-D marketing programs electronically by Dec. 15 would be shut out of the programs for the year. Likewise manufacturers and reps.

If anyone in the room was shocked at the ultimatum, they didn't show it. Most of the companies already were connected, and the rest probably knew this day would come. Yet the stance taken by A-D put the entire electrical industry on notice that the move to electronic commerce was now inevitable. The wait-and-see period was over.

By the Dec. 15 deadline all of A-D's affiliates had stepped up to Weisberg's challenge. "For the first time, for many of them, they had a reason to embrace the Internet," says Steve Ruane, A-D director of marketing. Many immediately began to see the other benefits of the Internet-beyond simplified communications with their buying group-such as the ability to communicate more easily with far-flung branches via e-mail.

The benefits are definitely being felt in A-D's mailroom and on its balance sheet. By mid-January, Ruane says, the group had already cut its monthly mailing costs by half.

As of mid-January, the group had 289 distributor companies, 254 vendors and 1,884 rep firms registered with the system, with an average of 340 companies visiting the site per day.

A-D is planning additions to the system, including features to aid electronic commerce among distributors, vendors and reps, as well as tools for sales development and for coordinating penetration of national accounts and integrated supply contracts, Ruane says.