Web sites joust for school business

Two new web sites are jousting for the right to help school officials who are fed up with the hassle of traditional school supply procurement procedures. The sites aim to take some of the burden off of purchasing officials—and the red tape out of the buying process.

The two players in the K-12 online procurement arena are Epylon.com and the brand-new Simplexis.com. Between them, they hope to win at least a small portion of what the Gartner Group market research estimated in 1999 was a $115 billion market.

“We sell everything it takes to run the business of education, from hundreds of gallons of floor wax to grandstands, to pencils and paper,” said Jared Cameron, vice president for communications at Simplexis.

Epylon, the more venerable of the two sites, has been in beta testing in 65 districts over the past year, and it will be the first web site where school purchasing officials can go to buy essential equipment for their districts. Simplexis launched its beta testing in February, under the leadership of former U.S. secretary of education, ex-Tennessee governor, and one-time presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander.

Both sites will be free to schools. Both will provide comparisons of products and services in an attempt to make the procurement process more efficient. And both aim to become a single source for everything a school district needs to operate.

Before the development of these sites, large school districts with 10-15 procurement staffers and thousands of new students per year were totally responsible for researching and making decisions on the more than 1,000 needs that hit their desks every week.

“Typically, these folks get on the phone or go to catalogs to get information on products,” said Steve George, Epylon’s founder, president, and CEO. District employees must then submit request forms, which are shuffled from department to department, taking weeks and using up valuable time before finally being approved.

Nationwide, school officials handle an estimated 25 million purchase orders per year, according to Simplexis.

“There’s a lot of paper and a lot of suppliers doing nothing but trying to make a sale,” said Epylon’s George. “We want to create a paperless solution to allow more time for teaching kids.”

According to Simplexis’ Cameron, a single requisition form costs a school district $125 (by Department of Education estimates) in the form of labor and paper costs. The new web sites claim to cut those expenses and even eliminate the cost of buying new software.

With online procurement sites, Simplexis’ Cameron explained, procurement information is entered online using standard district forms and submitted to all the proper parties electronically, thereby eliminating processing costs.

Both companies say the vendors they represent online are chosen by the districts themselves. “We want to compliment the existing sales processes,” Epylon’s George said.

Linda Bertolucci is the director of purchasing for Grossmont Union High School District, one of the schools participating in Epylon’s beta testing. “From what I’ve seen, this is a one-stop shop. They’ll even produce price quotes for new products for me, which is a wonderful time-saver,” she said.

Though both companies agree that a little competition is healthy for a growing market, they disagree on their methods of research and implementation.

Epylon has based its strategy on creating a web resource tailor-made for educators by initially beta-testing the web site with 55 school districts leveraging over $3 billion in purchasing power. “It is different in schools than in the private sector. Education needs a tailored web resource. Private sector resources can’t be tweaked to fit education standards,” George said.

Bertolucci agreed. “I’ve done both, and there is a real difference in how a private business and school districts do their purchasing,” she said.

Not necessarily so, say officials at Simplexis. “Our objectives are threefold,” explained Alexander. “First, we want to make [purchasing] simple. Second, we want it to be reliable. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We have taken technologies proven in the business world and adapted them to fit school’s needs. Finally, we want our site to be comprehensive. We want to make sure school officials have the broadest selection of vendors possible.”

One point they both agree on: moving the complex procurement process online will be good for schools. “Saving money on the supplies schools buy means more money for kids in classrooms,” Alexander said. “Helping schools cut costs is what Simplexis is all about.”



eSchool News Staff

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