No one ever said buying business software would be easy. But with this one-step resource in hand, you will be buying a lot smarter next time around.

Electrical Wholesaling looked at 22 enterprise-wide, distribution software companies and ended up with a baker's dozen that we felt should be included in our Software Roundup. Of those 13, four are associate members of IDEA, the Industry Data Exchange Association: Eclipse, Mincron, Prophet 21, and Trade Service. The information summarized in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is subject to change.This is not an exhaustive listing of distribution software companies, but a sampling of those with experience or features pertinent to the electrical industry. The features itemized do not represent a complete listing of each vendor product's capabilities, but are intended only to provide a general overview of the vendor application. For complete information on the products and requirements for your particular installation needs, please contact the vendor directly.

Heavy sigh. You have come to an undeniable, inevitable decision. You have to buy a new enterprise--wide software application system for your company. Ouch. It's expensive. Software companies promise the world. You're not really computer savvy. How will you know what questions to ask? You make a mental note to buy Maalox on your way home. It's a daunting task. Nearly every distributor who has been through the process of installing a new information system will have a horror story or two. But you can make the process less painful by doing some homework.

Where to begin. You choose software in terms of cost/benefit. So you need to find out how much the software costs in package price, maintenance, hardware, and learning time. Then determine the benefit returned in terms of productivity and professional, correct, salable results.

The first thing to do is put together a shopping list. The technical term is a "requirements document." Steve Epner, president of B.S.W. Consulting, St. Louis, Mo., says the shopping list is the most important part of choosing a software package. "In reality, if you just see demonstrations, everyone will have the perfect solution for you, and they don't even know what the questions are," he says. "They are going to show you what they do best. What you need to do is go in armed with a list of the things you want out of the system. You control the conversation. That's most important."

These are some points to consider to help you make your list and choose software that works well, is cost-efficient and you won't outgrow.

Look into your future. Where is your company going in the next five years? What do you plan to be doing then that you aren't doing now? A software application needs to be able to not only meet your current needs, but be scalable and adaptable enough to meet your needs in the future.

"In creating that list of requirements, what we find is that a lot of distributors don't spend enough time dreaming about the future," says Epner. "What they try to do is look for someone who can duplicate the past. Well, if you automate garbage, all you get is faster garbage."

Ed Lay, president and managing director of Distribution Resources, a New York, N.Y.-based distributor consulting firm (not associated with the software company reviewed herein), agrees. He says that in his experience most distributors tend to buy the minimum. "A full-blown information system for a complex supply business is not a small investment," he says. "But I have yet to see any distributor I have worked with make some sort of far-sighted commitment."

He has repeatedly observed that because these application systems tend to be very expensive, distributors turn a blind eye to the future. "Part of the reason they do that is that they tend to look at these systems as glorified billing systems, rather than as something they can use for marketing purposes and real data analysis," he says. "All that data that becomes resident in a billing and information system becomes extremely useful to analyze such things as customer habits, what they're buying, when they're not buying."

Epner says you probably won't be able to do everything you come up with on your list, "but what you can do is figure out where you're going to get competitive advantage, and look for the packages that will help you do that." Look at each software application as something that should be able to help you make predictions about the future and grow with you into the future.

Go on a picnic. Get as many people involved in the evaluation process as possible. Epner recommends putting together a team and going off-site to decide what should be on the shopping list. "And don't make your team just the executives, because the executives often don't know what's really going on," he emphasizes. "Have on hand the people who are actually doing the work, with enough executives and managers so that decisions can be made."

Epner says there is a rule in computer science that is sort of a basic law. It says that the lowest-level employee can make the best system in the world fail. "By getting everyone involved you have buy-in," he says. "If executives make the decision in a vacuum, it's their decision, and no one else has any ownership in it. If they get the line people and the supervisors involved in the decision making, they own it and they can make a mediocre system succeed beyond your wildest imagination."

Work the grapevine. Judging software is tough. You can't just look at it, walk around it and flip through the manual. It's hard to see obvious things that may be missing. Get the names of users of the software packages you are seriously considering for purchase and talk to them. What do they like about the system? What about it drives them nuts? How do they feel about the support they receive from the vendor? Was the vendor upfront about training and support fees? Ask those users what they wish they had asked before they bought the system.

Consider features. As in a car ad, a feature list itemizes the things included in that model. But in deciding on the purchase, you have to judge how those features will improve the drive. The car's feature list may include all-wheel drive, but if you drive in the suburbs 90% of the time, is that something you really want to pay for? Ask the vendor which modules must be purchased as core products, which ones can be purchased as options, or added later as needed. For instance, are they touting their Gordon Graham inventory module? See if you can buy it later, because it's useless until you have a year's worth of inventory data stored.

Go for a test drive. If possible, try the software actually installed on someone else's system. By way of a software company's user group or simply word of mouth, get the names of a couple of distributors who don't compete with you, and ask if you can visit their facilities to see the system in action. Find opportunities to become familiar with the software before making the purchase.

Evaluate support. This area, too, can make or break you as far as successful implementation of a new software system. Software should be rich with support mechanisms, both formal (such as classroom training, manuals, CD-ROMS, and videos) and informal (help functions resident in the software, help via a Web site or Internet access, a well-staffed hot line, fax-on-demand, or newsletters). You want a software company who will partner with you, not one with a love 'em and leave 'em mentality.

Consider friendliness. A software system does not exist in a vacuum. A vendor's software must get along with other software on your system and other systems. Data must be put into vendor-specific formats and retrieved from vendor-specific formats in other systems. Good software anticipates the need for interoperability for input (data and programs) and output (graphics and listings). Verify that the vendor's general input/output facilities adhere to industry standard formats. And if electronic commerce is something you wish to participate in, find out how receptive the software is to supporting that capability. How important is the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) to you? If it's very important and your vendor has never heard of IDW or IDEA, then perhaps they are not the company for you.

Look at the market. Why are some software systems more popular in some industries than others? More than likely because for those industries they are cost effective and get the job done. Find out who the software company's customers are. Ask for some installed-base statistics. What industries do they serve? If they are not heavy into the electrical industry, then on what similar industries do they focus? If they cannot produce several good-sized electrical distributors as references, make them show you exactly how and why their system would meet your company's needs. Bring up electrical-industry specific problems your software system needs to be able to handle, such as exception business, perhaps manufacturer-subsidized products sold below cost to certain customers.

Consider extensibility. No software application's feature list meets all the needs of every distributor. They are by nature written to appeal to a broad spectrum of users. The application should accommodate easy (and perhaps frequent) modifications to suit the individual distributor, his vendors requests, his customers' requests and also changes in that crazy market known as the electrical industry. Of all the features, this may perhaps be the one to spend the most time considering. Needs change. Customers change. Everything changes. No one can predict the formats that will be used in the future. Software must be capable of rapid response to new advances.

A character-based system, typically based on languages, platforms and techniques earlier than current technology, is usually a little less receptive to change than a graphical-based system. It's text-and-keyboard oriented, although many now have a graphical user interface.

Character-based systems can and often do require rewriting code to change the format of a report or file, whereas a true graphical-based system merely involves dragging and dropping a field into its new location. "That makes you very nimble," says Bob Riefstahl, executive director, industry sales, for NxTrend. "The fact of the matter is, for electrical wholesalers in the future to continue to prove value, instead of just being price-oriented, they need tools like that to be able to add more value to their services than anybody else. They need to be able to do things more quickly for their customers and vendors. A graphical environment goes a long way towards that end."

Ed Lay points out that the kind of code or tools used to extract data, generate ad hoc reports or make file changes can seriously impact the way a distributor can respond to his customers' needs. "Some software applications require serious programming-language training to be able to accomplish that," he says.

Another point to consider is staffing your IS department as it grows. It matters not whether you look at Bill Gates as a computer god or the antichrist. The fact of the matter is that most people coming out of college and entering the workforce today are used to using Microsoft products. They will be productive faster in a graphical, Microsoft environment than in one where they must first learn a character-based system (see March 1999 EW, "Vying for Top Billing, page 24).

Get smart. Many people underestimate learning time. While software programs may not be as hard to learn as FORTRAN was back in the early days, let's face it, they can still be pretty tough. They are complex systems to navigate through. As a result, a very large comprehensive package may not be utilized to its full advantage, simply because all the minute features are not fully understood.

Adequate training will help ensure you're using everything you paid for. Roger Warrender, product manager, Daly.commerce, Providence, R.I., says. "Typically, the more education you perform on a more detailed level, the better. With more education your chance of being successful increases dramatically."

Of the factors on the cost side, the key factor may be learning time. Lay says it's crucial that a distributor get an understanding of exactly what kind of training is going to be required before his people can use all of the system's capabilities. Only then will he get a true picture of what the training will cost and how long it will take to become productive on the system. And only with adequate training will the distributor be able to put to full use the data resident in his system.

However, Epner says if distributors don't get a clear picture from software vendors of what training costs will be, it's the distributors' fault. He says when distributors are buying systems, they say, 'Oh, we've got to cut the price! We've got to cut the price!' The easiest place to cut the price is training, because they always think their people can learn the system faster than what the vendor projects. "So the vendor says, 'We'll give you a (smaller) training budget. If your people are really good you won't need any more than that,'" says Epner. "It's all to help get the sale. The software vendors have learned that if they propose the appropriate amount of training and their competitors don't, they are at a cost disadvantage. So the distributors have brought that problem on themselves. And it is a major problem."

Vendors are usually upfront about training at the very beginning, Epner says, but then when they start getting beat up over price, it goes under the table."I work with vendors all the time on RFPs, and they all say that no one is willing to put the money into training until there's a failure. The two things that will have the most to do with the success of a system is buy-in and training. If people haven't bought into the system, it doesn't matter how much you train them, they'll make it fail."

Bring some outsiders in. Don't be afraid to look at companies that work mainly with customers outside the electrical industry. Even if you don't feel comfortable going with a software company with little or no experience specifically with electrical distributors, they may give you some insight into what to ask the vendors that do work mainly within our industry. And just because a company works mainly with other industries doesn't mean it wouldn't be a fine fit for your particular company. There might even be some advantages.

"EDI is one of the areas where not being specifically into electrical is a real benefit for our customers in electrical who are now getting into EDI, because other areas of the distribution world are far more advanced than electrical in the use of EDI," says Jeff Donahue, director of marketing, Tech Systems, Inc., Bettendorf, Iowa. "If someone is providing an electrical-industry-specific package, they may have a couple of bells and whistles we may not have for electrical. But on the flip side, they may not be into the emerging stuff because electrical is not asking them for it."

Summary. After speaking with all the software vendors, we came away with some generalities:

All vendors offer some common elements. These features include a general accounting package, purchasing, collections to one degree or another, sales-order entry, remote sales-order entry, point-of-sale, sales analysis, sales force automation features, provisions for MSDS sheets, RF Bar Code technology, inventory control/management, some type of warehouse management, fax/fax on demand, and custom report generation.

Most companies work with third-party financing companies. This means that hardware, software, and sometimes even training can be obtained through a lease.

Expect to pay more for on-site training. Whenever an instructor travels to the customer's site to conduct training, the distributor must pick up all travel and living expenses for the instructor.

The utility software needed to run the system efficiently is usually bundled into the system. Ask to make sure.

The hardware manufacturer usually provides the maintenance. Look to the hardware vendors here, rather than the software system providers.

Almost every vendor used some integrated third-party software. Some offered it in separate, optional modules. Some of the most frequently mentioned were: Crystal Reports from Seagate, Taxware, VisiFax, ICVerify (credit card verification), shipping and routing modules.

No vendor had any special printer or communications requirements. Payroll is a function most of the vendors are moving away from. Some provide a third-party software package or have an interface to services such as ADP.

All vendor applications could handle a near-infinite number of customers, vendors, manufacturers, etc.

With the information provided here, plus information from industry consultants, other distributors and your own personnel, you will be more than ready to corral those software vendors. So head 'em up, and move 'em out--into the toughest software sale they ever made!

Aside from those millions of questions you'll think of yourself, here are some questions you should ask all software vendors when evaluating their systems:

* Are there are any third-party software licensing fees not covered by the vendor's licensing fees?

* What are the memory and data storage requirements?

* Do you provide a UPS (uninterrupted power supply) system as part of the package?

* Do you recommend PCs or dumb terminals or a mix? Why?

* How does your system handle Total Quality Management? (Note: Each vendor has its own definition of what TQM is.)

* How does your system handle retail sales? What sales tax provisions do you provide for doing business in multiple states?

* What type of office automation features do you provide? (Note: Some applications rely on what is available through the customer's word processing package, such as Microsoft Office.)

* Does the hardware installation include any cabling?

* What about equipment set-up charges, technical services fees (such as for datacom) and custom software fees?

* Is your system fully Y2K compliant?

* Do you have any special support or services, such as 24/7 help desk availability?

* What are your oldest modules? Are any scheduled to be rewritten soon?

* Do you have references for your VARs (Value Added Resellers)? (When the software vendors sell through these channels, VARs typically will be doing most of the training and support.)

* Are your branch offices really fully-staffed branches or just sales offices?

Main office: Novato, Calif. Branch offices: None Year established: 1983 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: Not available Current installed base: 200 users, 2% electrical distributors, mostly industrial. Target market: $1million to $5 million in sales. Company-sponsored user group: No Recommended hardware: Any Operating system: Pick, UNIX, SCO UNIX, DOS, Windows NT. Automated data backup system: Available as option Software application name: Amplexus Advantage Current version/release: 9806 Software licensing fee: Based on number of users Major software upgrades: Yearly Scalability: Hardware limitations only Software maintenance fees: Based on number of users Database system: Pick Pull-down/pop-up menus: No, text-based. Mouse support through terminal emulator. Graphical display of data: Through terminal emulation. Optional graphical interface available by 2000. Data conversion: By Amplexus Terminal emulation: Yes, for Pick system's DBMS Lighting or other showroom packages: No EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, No, Yes

For more information, contact: Gene Adkinson, national sales manager 800-423-8268, ext. 835 E-mail: mail@amplexus.com Web site: www.amplexus.com

Training for new customers is available through Amplexus or through one of the company's regional independent value-added resellers (VARs) and is charged on a daily basis. On-site training is available for $1,000 per day. If conducted at Amplexus training facility, the fee is reduced to $800 per day.

The company also utilizes CD-ROM training (six currently available, more in development). Several options exist for additional support. A "monthly club" rate is available for customers who choose to prepay in advance for support. With this membership the license fee for software upgrades is waived. Charges are incurred for installation and modifications to custom programs affected by the installation.

When the server is purchased through Amplexus, the software application is loaded onto the system before it's shipped to customer. If customers obtain hardware independently, the application software is mailed to them on a CD-ROM and they load it themselves with phone support from Amplexus personnel.

The application has an extensive cross-referencing system that makes it easy for a user to find vendors, customers, products, etc., without remembering a code number, including customer/vendor part number and synonym part number cross references.

Shipping features include order dispatch to delivery routes, unlimited service order comments and job instructions. Optional modules include Payroll/Time clock; a Rentals module; Repair & Recurring Billing module; and a Dispatch module. The RF Bar Coding module is extensive.

Main office: Providence, R.I. Branch offices: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto Year established: 1977 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $40 million in sales Current installed base: 1,100, 3% electrical distributors Target market: $40 million to $250 million Company-sponsored user group: Yes, national and regional Main contact: Branch managers Recommended hardware: AS/400, UNIX, Windows NT Operating system: OS400, UNIX or Windows NT Automated data backup system: Yes, with manual override Software application name: A+/400 (AS/400 RPG) and Commerce@work (open architecture for UNIX and Windows NT). Current version/release: V4.00 (both applications) Software licensing fee: Yes, 9% of current, non-discounted software price; also Response Line Services fee, 6% of current software price (optional after first year). Major software upgrades: Every six months Scalability: Benchmarked to 1,500 users, current systems range from five to 600 users with 14 remote warehouses. Software maintenance fees: Based on users per system Database system: DB2 and Progress Pull-down/pop-up menus: Available in Commerce@work Graphical display of data: Available in Commerce@work Data conversion: By Daly.commerce Professional Services or a Daly.commerce business partner Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: No EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, No

For more information, contact: Lisa Strazzante, marketing communications manager 401-752-4286 E-mail: info@dalycommerce.net Web site: www.dalycommerce.net

Custom modifications are done by Daly.commerce's Professional Services group or by its dealer network, which includes 40 to 50 value-added resellers across U.S. and Canada that market the product and can provide modification and installation services. Data-conversion programs are included as part of system package. Some data mapping involved; it's recommended that someone with programming experience handle the conversion.

There's a standard class fee per student for training at one of four education centers, or a daily rate if conducted at customer's location. Four education tiers include an executive tier for management; a technical tier for IT staff, where such things as program modification is taught (program source code is included as part of the software purchase price); and a detailed, in-depth training tier for people who will use the system. User training is set up by module, so that only the people who will be using a particular module will attend that module training class, Training can take up to three weeks because there are 23 modules. The fourth tier is for advanced classes, held typically six months to a year after installation. It covers advanced functions, logic used in calculations within modules, etc. Customers are often self-sufficient on the system within six to nine months. Smaller customers ($20 million, under 40 users) are usually serviced through the dealer channel (resellers).

Main office: Dallas, Texas Branch offices: Hoffman Estates, Ill. Year established: 1992 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: Not available Current installed base: 350, 10% electrical distributors Target market: Typically six users to 30 users, largest installation has 60 workstations. Company-sponsored user group: National and regional Main contact: Doug Perkinson, president, Source Assoc., 408-970-0128, e-mail: dougperkinson@worldnet.att.net Recommended hardware: Prefer Intel Pentium CPU (LAN-based solution) Operating system: Microsoft NT or Novell Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: Touchstone/2000 Current version/release: 2.01b Software licensing fee: Based on number of users; about $11,000 for a three-user system for base system, then typically averages about $1,000 per additional user, sold in blocks of three or six users. Major software upgrades: About once yearly Scalability: Up to about 1,500 daily transactions Software maintenance fees: 6% annually Database system: Pervasive P.SQL Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: by VARs (value-added resellers) channel Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, No, No

For more information, contact: Janet Scholl, marketing 972-888-6043 E-mail: jscholl@dimasys.com Web site: www.dimasys.com

Dimasys is sold through an international network of Value Added Resellers (VARs), who also provide the support and training.

Training costs are dependent on whether customers attend classroom training, on-site training, and which reseller the product is purchased through. Also, the more training days the customer signs up for, the lower the per-day price. Training generally costs from $750 to $1,500 per day. Educational and training manuals have been developed that are separate from the standard Touchstone/2000 operational manuals. Dimasys has strategic alliances with distribution consultants to develop specific guides to teach and educate new and existing customers.

Other features of note include PegBoard, a 52-week grid that nets out item commitments and back orders to specific customers against all outstanding purchase orders. This gives users the Available to Promise (ATP) quantity and availability date. Inventory management formulas are based on Gordon Graham principles.

When purchase-order replenishment quantities are calculated, a feature called Costulator allows distributors to review comparatives for all vendors that supply like items. Vendor specific variables such as discounts, rebates, landed costs and unique-load factors can be applied to determine which vendor offers the best buy.

The Vendor & Customer Rebate Cost Contracts feature allows item or product group rebates to be applied to specific customers, ship-to locations, or directly to vendor purchase orders as applied credits.

Main office: Englewood, Colo. Branch offices: Columbia, Md.; and London, England Year established: 1976 Publicly traded or privately held: Publicly held, independent subsidiary of Corporate Express Annual revenues: Not available Current installed base: 200, 20% electrical distributors Target market: $25 million in sales and up Company-sponsored user group: Yes, national and regional Main contact: Roger Rountree, vice president, marketing Recommended hardware: HP3000, new product launch for NT scheduled for third or fourth quarter1999 Operating system: HP's MPE, Windows NT Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: XPDT, core software plus modules, and Exp@dite, a turnkey system that includes XPDT core software. Current version/release: 2.0 for both applications Software licensing fee: No Major software upgrades: Every four to six months Scalability: Mostly based on hardware and customer support constraints Software maintenance fees: Currently about 18% to 20% of purchase price annually; will be restructured into tiers for different levels of support in the near future. Database system: SQL Server 7.0 Pull down/pop up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: By Distribution Resources Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, No

For more information, contact: Roger Rountree, vice president, marketing 303-889-4585 E-mail: rogerr@drcdnvr.com Web site: www.distributionresources.com

Distribution Resources recently purchased the MSD (Management System for Distributors) product from Management Technology International (MTI) and hired the MSD product support and development staff.

Training fees are based on percentage of the software purchase price. It's also priced by the day, at approximately $1,200 per day, at customer location or at the Distribution Resources headquarters. The training program includes classroom instruction and interactive multi-media tools such as PowerPoint, CD-ROMs, and Courseware, plus dial-up support, online support and detailed information on the company's Web site.

Multiple levels of training exist, including systems training and user training. It's recommended that systems administrators get formal Microsoft NT and SQL Server training (platform knowledge). Users need to have a good understanding of Microsoft Windows before attending any of the applications classes. Because of the NT environment, Distribution Resources prefers to install the systems in companies with a knowledgeable computer support staff.

The Web-enabled core software module in the new NT product provides extranet access and limited outside access to portions of an internal database. A data warehousing feature provides sales analysis. Users can buy servers independently, but the company has rigid guidelines as to which hardware must be used.

Main office: Shelton, Conn. Branch offices: Boulder, Colo.; and West Yarmouth, Mass. Year established: 1991 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $20+ million in sales Current installed base: 280, 20% electrical distributors: Company-sponsored User Group: Yes, UFO (User Friendly Organization) Main contact: Andy Petro, marketing director Recommended hardware: IBM RS/6000 or Windows NT platform Operating system: UNIX or NT Automated data backup system: No, scheduled tape backups Software Application name: Eclipse Distribution Management System Current version/release: 7.0 Software licensing fee: Yes, based on number of workstations Major software upgrades: Annually Scalability: Hardware dependent, up to 10,000 users Software maintenance fees: Variable, based on license fee or number of users Database system: Universe, 4GL tools provided Pull down/pop up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: By Eclipse Lighting or other showroom packages: Yes, extensive Fax/fax on demand: Yes Custom report generation: Yes Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Andy Petro, marketing director 303-938-8801, ext 1123 or 800-9-ECLIPSE E-mail: info@eclipseinc.com Web site: www.eclipseinc.com

Eclipse provides training at $150 per hour. There is a three-day introductory class at Eclipse headquarters; the remaining (and majority) of training is done at a customer's location. The training normally covers the usage of the core product and the companion products purchased; Total Quality Management and RF/Paperless Warehouse require additional training. One-on-one training is augmented by videos, CD-ROMs and a full offering of classes for continuing education on updates and new releases of the software.

The system includes a Branch Management module to manage safety stocks, average-demand points and EOQs for all branches. The software holds protected inventory for automatic transfer to branches that have committed sales and allocates shelf stock on a day's supply priority basis. Shipping features include StarShip Automated Shipping and Palm Pilot Signature Capture with manifest and delivery routing. The software's electronic-commerce capability includes the Eclipse Internet Gateway software suite,and a flexible software structure that parallels the IDW to make it seem native.

When systems are purchased, the CPUs are loaded, configured and burnt-in at Eclipse labs; "hot boxes " are then sent to customers. A single configuration charge for this service is priced according to the configuration. A 100% PC environment without any dumb terminals is required. Diagnostics and trouble-shooting are done over the Internet using TCP/IP to communicate with Internet Gateway.

Main office: Fresno, Calif. Branch offices: Richmond, Calif.; Chicago, Ill. Year established: 1992 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $500,000 Current installed base: 22, 50% electrical distributors Company-sponsored user group: No, monthly newsletter Target market: $1 million to $25 million, 4 to 50 users. Recommended hardware: From small Intel-based Pentium system to large-scale IBM RS/6000. Operating system: AIX, NT, Linux, Advanced Pick Automated data backup system: No Software application name: FORESITE Current version/release: 99.0401 Software licensing fee: No Major software upgrades: Quarterly Scalability: Currently from 2 to 60 users, 1 to 3 branch companies, but application will handle major multi-branch companies (support personnel constraints). Software maintenance fees: Monthly, sliding scale based on number of users. Database system: D3 Pull down/pop up menus: No Graphical display of data: No Data conversion: By Key Data Systems Lighting or other showroom packages: Yes Fax/fax on demand: Yes Custom report generation: Yes Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: No, No, No

For more information, contact: Jim Laner, 559-215-5520, ext. 110 or Jeffrey Kaufman, 559-432-3832 E-mail: keydat@keydat.com Web site: www.keydat.com

This software was developed in conjunction with Jim Laner, Laner Electric Supply, Richmond, Calif. The flagship system is installed at this company. Co-developers are also from the distribution industry.

Product pricing includes installation and on-site training in a semi-classroom setting, plus several additional on-site training visits about a month apart. Additional training is billed at $100 per hour. Continuing education for software updates includes a programmers' log that lists all program modifications and operating features.

This is a turnkey system with hardware and software, although some peripheral devices can be purchased by the customer independently. The server must be purchased through Key Data Systems, as the hardware is built per specification for each installation. All hardware is itemized separately and sold at 10% over cost. A light manufacturing module is available as an option, which allows for lighting component assembly.

Software enhancements or updates are free, and many enhancements or special reporting functions are suggested by users. If the user urgently needs a particular feature, there is an expedite fee. However, if the user can wait until the next software release, it's free.

The software includes a key word cross-referencing system to locate items, and an e-mail messaging system for intra-company communications. Shipping features include Haz Mat sheets/DOT, delivery routing.

Main office: Houston, Texas Branch offices: Chicago, Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia Year established: 1979 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $13 million Current installed base: 100+ users, 10% electrical distributors Target market: $20 million to $2 billion distributors Company-sponsored user group: Yes, national Recommended hardware: AS/400 Operating system: OS400 Automated data backup system: Optional Software application name: MSS/HD and MSS/WM (HD = Hardgoods Distribution, WM = Warehouse Management Current version/release: MSS/HS = Ver.1/Release 10.0, MSS/WM = Ver. 1/Release 1.3 Software licensing fee: Yes, one-time fee based on size of processor, good for 20 years Major software upgrades: Annually Scalability: 1 to 5,000 users Software maintenance fees: 15% of license fee Database system: DB2/400 Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes, as an option if PC is used Graphical display of data: Yes, as an option if PC is used, via MSS/DM (Data Miner) module. Data conversion: By Mincron Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Jonathan Lindle, education manager, 281-999-7010 E-mail: info@mincron.com Web site: www.mincron.com

Training is offered in-house or on-site, in classroom setting with an instructor. No training is done via videos, the Internet or CD-ROMs. Priced on a per-day basis, $1,500 per day.

Data Miner is an integrated PC desktop environment that interfaces with a host-based database in a client/server mode. Custom-report generation is available through this tool. MSS/DM presents data in a graphical, point-and-click format for those users having a PC or Windows NT desktop environment. It also features a decision support tool that allows users to request a list of available queries, using database information related to an existing screen or report. No programming or database knowledge is needed. MSS/DM also runs in JAVA virtual machine environments under standard Web browsers and is Internet enabled.

The Remote Commerce function facilitates sales force automation and "distributor-managed inventory"--a function similar to vendor-managed inventory. This module allows a distributor to manage inventory at a customer's site, and consists of a remote-data collection device using bar codes to inventory, bill for and automatically replenish material used.

The systems shipping shipping features include fully integrated delivery and sequencing. Provision for MSDS sheets is optional in the HD product, and standard in the WM product. There is an extensive Web Order Entry module. There is sales force automation capability through a third-party interface and remote data collection technology.

Main office: Colorado Springs, Colo. Branch offices: Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Toronto Year established: 1979 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $59 million Current installed base: 1,000 users, 15% electrical distributors Target market: $25 million to $1 billion Company-sponsored user group: Yes, national, plus electrical users group that meets twice yearly Main contact: Electrical users group: Rusty Bond, director of industry sales, 770-239-3051 Recommended hardware: IBM (RS6000), DEC, Data General or HP RISC architectures and Windows NT environment Operating system: UNIX or NT Automated data backup system: Available as option Software application name: Sx.enterprise (Formerly Trend) Current version/release: 1.2 Software licensing fee: Yes Major software upgrades: Annually Scalability: Benchmarked to 4,000 users thus far Software maintenance fees: Yes, dependent on components licensed/purchased. Database system: Progress Pull down/pop up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: By NxTrend Lighting or other showroom packages: Yes Terminal emulation: Not needed EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Rusty Bond Director of industry sales 770-239-3051 Web site: www.nxtrend.com

NxTrend works actively to adhere to industry standards as opposed to proprietary databases, programming languages or user interfaces to offer customers an open solution. The company has been an active participant in the development of the Industry Data Warehouse.

When a new release comes out, each customer receives a video and a workbook that highlights all the changes in the new release, their impact and why the changes were made.

In addition to formal classroom training at NxTrend locations, the company will also provide custom training at the customer's location. There is an hourly fee plus expenses charged for the on-site training. Standard training fees after initial installation of the application runs between $150 and $200 per hour; hours required are estimated based on an extensive customer evaluation. Self-study tools are available including videos, workbooks/practice sets, CD-ROMs and computer-based training. Remote training via modem and phone is also available

The Sales Force Automation module includes customer- and prospect-analysis capability. The lighting and showroom package is part of the core product.

NxTrend also carries, supports and continually enhances the SHIMS package, acquired when NxTrend purchased Ultimate Data Systems.

Main office: Yardley, Pa. Branch offices: Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas Year established: 1967 Publicly traded or privately held: Public Annual revenues: $46 million Current installed base: 2,000 users, 20% electrical distributors Target market: $8 million to $200 million Company-sponsored user group: Yes Main contact: Patty McMenamin 215-493-8900 Recommended hardware: RS/6000, AS/400, Intel-based NT server Operating system: Unix, OS/400, or Windows NT Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: Prophet 21 Acclaim (UNIX-based) and Prophet 21 Wholesale (NT-based) Current version/release: Acclaim = 10.0, Wholesale = 1.6 Software licensing fee: based on number of users Major software upgrades: Acclaim = annually, Wholesale = twice a year Scalability: Extensive, hardware dependent Software maintenance fees: Yes Database system: Acclaim = Progress, Wholesale = Microsoft SQL 7.0 or IBM DB2/400 Pull down/pop up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: By Prophet 21 Lighting or other showroom packages: Yes, (in third quarter 1999 for Wholesale) Terminal emulation: Yes for Acclaim, n/a for Wholesale EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: 800-PROPHET, Ext. 3120 Web site: www.p21.com

This software application is generally sold as a complete, integrated solution, but there are some optional modules. There is also a P21 Plus 2000 Value Pack, is a bundled set of non-standard options/modules available for the unique exceptions that arise in a business.

Prophet 21 has a fully integrated Web order entry system (Internet Storefront) and is committed to the Industry Data Warehouse. Electronic commerce solution includes ePac, a suite of best-of-breed technologies that provides a complete, working Internet commerce solution. The ePac suite includes hardware, software, web server, networking, routers, modems and security, and works with Acclaim version 10 or higher and Wholesale version 1.7 or higher.

The company has an elaborate educational program. Instructor-led training is priced by the hour. The hourly rate is based on numerous variables, including evaluation of existing expertise of personnel to be trained, number of people to be trained, products purchased, type of training, training locations, etc. Pricing is quoted to customers on an individual basis.

Prophet 21 also utilizes CD-ROMs and video programs as back-up training or in conjunction with a "train-the-trainer" program. The company's Multi-Media University includes a well-developed set of training CD-ROMs that cover the individual modules of the software application. The Multi-Media University training package is priced separately and in addition to other training. There is a free "Campus Visit" CD available that gives a good overview of computer-based training and examples of some of the training CDs.

Main office: Duluth, Ga. Branch offices: Chicago, Dallas, Tampa, Shrewsbury, N.J. Year established: 1979 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: Not available Current installed base: 1,000, 12% electrical distributors Target market: $5 million to $50 million Company-sponsored user group: Yes Main contact: Michael Croxton, 770-418-2000 Recommended hardware: AS/400 or RS/6000 Operating system: AS/400 = OS400, UNIX = SCO, AIX and Linux or Windows NT Automated data backup system: No Software application name: DMAS (AS/400 product), FACTS (originally UNIX-based, now also supports Windows NT), and TAKESTOCK (Windows NT-based) Current version/release: DMAS = 7.6, FACTS = 6.07, TAKESTOCK = 3.01 Software licensing fee: Yes, based primarily on number of users Major software upgrades: Every six to nine months Scalability: Hardware dependent Software maintenance fees: Averages 18% of licensing fee, yearly Database system: AS/400 = DB400, FACTS = SQL-based, TAKE STOCK = Progress Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes, TAKESTOCK Data conversion: By Software Solutions Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: In FACTS product EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Michael Croxton 770-418-2000 E-mail: mcroxton@sofsol.com Web site: www.sofsol.com

Software Solutions's products are sold through the company as well as through a network of 70 value-added resellers (VARs) across North America. Much of the training is handled by the VARs.

Training runs $350 per day per user, negotiable depending on which modules are purchased, how many people will attend classes, and whether training is done on-site or off-site. If a major upgrade includes new functionality, there is a charge for training on the new functionality.

The TAKESTOCK application uses the inventory management principles of Gordon Graham and includes eight integrated core modules. There is also an extensive assortment of "best-of-breed" add-on modules, such as Multi-Currency and Internet InterLink. Available features include prioritized backorder fulfillment, stock reservations and non-stock sales tracking. The system is designed with advanced object-oriented technology and adheres to open desktop principles allowing seamless integration with third-party office automation tools.

FACTS, the company's flagship product, is comprised of 22 highly-integrated modules. It has extensive electronic capabilities, including a module called Internet On-Ramp, a secure Web-enabled application that links customers and remote salespeople to FACTS via the Internet.

Main office: South Holland, Ill. Branch offices: Eleven branches across the U.S. Year established: 1976 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: $10 million Current installed base: 300 users, 10% electrical distributors Target market: 24 to 64 workstations Company-sponsored user group: National and regional Main Contact: Sandy Roman, 708-596-8888, E-mail: sls@sysdes.com Recommended hardware: IBM RS/6000, Netfinity and NCR Pentium-based products Operating system: UNIX AIX, SCO UNIX, and will integrate with Windows NT Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: Prism, Facet Term (Prism Windows) Current version/release: 9.0 Software licensing fee: Yes, based on user count and proprietary modules purchased Major software upgrades: Every 12 to 24 months Scalability: Hardware dependent; one installation has 700 users Software maintenance fees: Included in licensing fee Database system: Unidata Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: ODBC environment, direct access to data through such programs as Lotus or Excel Data conversion: By Systems Design Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: No EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Marc Kruer, marketing manager 708-596-8888, ext. 130 E-mail: wmk@sysdes.com Web site: www.sysdes.com

Systems Design has adopted a best-of-breed approach with a wide assortment of third-party software packages integrated into the application.

Updates to the software come with a complete upgrade package. Continuing classroom training fee is $50 per quarter, plus $25 per class day for any number of people to attend. This is for new customers, existing customers and for upgrades. Training at a distributor's site costs $125 per hour. Online support documentation is available through the Internet, through PRISMFax capability and directly through the application itself (through help keys).

PRISMWindows, or Facet Term, allows each workstation up to nine open applications at once. By pressing a single key, users can instantly go from one task to another to answer a question or enter an order, then return instantly to the original open application.

Point of Sale functionality includes a signature capture pad with the Counter Billing module. Shipping features include delivery routing and interface with the ASAM shipping manifest system. Sales Force Automation features are included PRISM Shipping Manifest.

The systems' Sales Order Entry and Inventory Management & Control modules are comprehensive. Also available is Taxware, a product for distributors with extensive multi-state sales tax requirements.

Main office: Bettendorf, Iowa Branch offices: Kansas City, Des Moines Year established: 1971 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Annual revenues: Not available Current installed base: 1,000+, 10% electrical distributors Target market: $3 million to $50 million Company-sponsored user group: informal technology workshops Recommended hardware: Intel-based server, UNIX environment. Operating system: SCO UNIXware 7.1 Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: TechGAP Current version/release: Version 4.0, release 30 Software licensing fee: Based on number of users, generally sold in blocks of 10 Major software upgrades: Every quarter, at no charge Scalability: Based on hardware limitations Software maintenance fees: Included in annual license and support agreement; 12% of software purchase, includes unlimited "hotline" support for the software. Database system: C-ISAM by Informix Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: ODBC through Access, Excel Data conversion: By Tech Systems Lighting or other showroom packages: No Terminal emulation: Yes, and PC networking EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, VMI limited

For more information, contact: Jeff Donahue, director of marketing 888-717-5030 E-mail: jeffd@techgap.com Web site: www.techgap.com

Training is quoted based on modules purchased, the number of warehouses involved, number of users, and type of training customer wants. Training materials include Q & A-format booklets that correspond to each module. Installation includes two-day getting-started training session at Tech Systems offices. Installation is billed by the hour. Additional training billed at $135 per hour.

New releases come with Release Notes, which describe the features available, how to install them, how to use them, and any needed setups. Any questions are fielded through Help Desk; any significant training issues are handled through training department.

There are 35 software modules available, a result of all the niche markets the company serves. This is one of the top software companies recommended by Gordon Graham, and one of the few companies that continue to offer Payroll, with two fully integrated systems, simple and robust.

Customization is billed by the hour, but fixed-bid. Most customers spend about 10% of software purchase price on customization. Could go as high as 25% if customer requires extensive customized forms, etc. If customer grosses $5 million or less, he can typically run software application right out of the box. Tech Systems prefers to provide the server, but will allow customer to obtain their own. There is no charge for hardware installation.

Company's marketing director says Tech Systems handles multi-location companies very well and is a good fit for a company that doesn't have a computer staff or a lot of computer sophistication because they have the resources to support that kind of installation.

Main office: Blue Bell, Pa. Branch offices: Virginia Beach, Va.; Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego Year established: 1969 Publicly traded or privately held: Private Current installed base: 375 users, 93% electrical distributors Target market: 10 employees to 1,000+ employees Company-sponsored user group: Yes, national Main contact: H.A. Holden Co., 612-577-5555 Recommended hardware: UNIX-based, RISC 6000, or NT-based. Operating system: AIX or NT Automated data backup system: Yes Software application name: Array SQL Current version/release: 6.0 Software licensing fee: Yes, based on number of users Major software upgrades: Every year Scalability: To more than 1,000 users Software maintenance fees: Included in licensing fees Database system: Microsoft SQL Pull-down/pop-up menus: Yes Graphical display of data: Yes Data conversion: By Trade Service Lighting or other showroom packages: Yes Terminal emulation: Yes EDI/IDW/VMI: Yes, Yes, Yes

For more information, contact: Mike Wentz, director of marketing 800-289-8771, ext. 6936 E-mail: marketing@tradeservice.com Web site: www.tradeservice.com

Trade Service Systems has been in the electrical market for 30 years, and parent company Trade Service Corp. has been in the market for 70 years. Of EW's 250 biggest electrical distributors, 54 have installed Trade Service Systems applications. The company markets almost exclusively to electrical wholesale distributors. Both companies collaborated on the Web Order Entry system. It provides indexes that can coach users who don't know an item code to find a product they need by asking specific questions that will lead to the product.

Standard training fees are based on the user license fee, on a per-day basis. Some training is done initially at Trade Service's headquarters (basic operations lab, hands on). There is no charge for lab training. Most training is done at customer site. The company is also beginning to use Computer Based Training (CBT). Trade Service recommends a minimum of 10 to 30 days of on-site training, depending on the size of the installation. Training for new software releases is done through user manuals and classes, at no charge.

Every system sold includes a third-party software module called Double Vision. This module allows a support person at Trade Service trying to diagnose a user's problem to see every keystroke the user is making, right or wrong, as he is making it on the system.

There is an extensive office automation offering that includes messaging and an employee resource tracking tool. The Warehouse Management module features the Paperless Warehouse. The software also includes a well-developed Total Quality Management module. Applications are customized by switching options off and on rather than rewriting code. There's no extra charge for different options switched on within a module, only for the optional module itself.