Online purchasing networks for school supplies received a great deal of attention beginning about two years ago, as nearly a dozen companies sprouted to serve those responsible for making an estimated $85 billion in purchases annually on behalf of U.S. schools. While the early ardor for these sites has cooled (alongside a retrenchment of all e-commerce), experts say the sites are gradually making their mark in K-12 education.

In the months ahead, some sites will merge. Others will go out of business. But one or more sites will flourish, as school purchasing directors, administrators, and teachers recognize the inherent benefits of online purchasing. Four companies are tagged by most analysts as the strongest contenders: Epylon, eschoolmall.com, Kawama.com, and Simplexis.

These leading sites all promise to help purchasing directors and others reduce the paperwork and improve the speed of obtaining supplies. With a single school purchase order costing as much as several hundred dollars, according to some studies, there is great potential benefit from these online services.

Another benefit is that if school staff members are freed from paperwork, they can respond to the needs of teachers, students, and parents in other, more productive ways. All the sites offer similar catalogs of office products, textbooks, cleaning supplies, athletic equipment, and other materials. They all have ways for administrators and purchasing directors to approve purchase requests made by other school staff. They all charge school districts an annual fee for maintaining the system, though the fees are tens of thousands of dollars less than schools can save through efficiencies.