About five years ago, the purchasing and contract services department of the Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, embarked on a project to turn its catalog of supplies into an online shopping mall for teachers, administrators, and staff. The district took its paper catalog, which was printed once each year, and brought it online. The project has proven extremely popular with all users.

Here are some keys to creating a similar program:

  1. Get quality staff. From the outset, the purchasing department worked with a member of the district’s information technology department to ensure that the transition from suppliers’ catalogs to the district’s online catalog could be accomplished. The purchasing department also hired a full-time technical employee to keep the online mall updated.
  2. Don’t move too fast. It took six months to create the initial online mall and a year of testing to refine it. The transition to eliminating the paper-based catalog took another four years.
  3. Upgrade gradually. Initially, products could be viewed online, but they still had to be ordered on paper. As technology for online purchasing improved, the purchasing department added this capability.
  4. Copy what works. The purchasing site was designed to mimic popular consumer e-commerce sites and has the same features to which consumers have become accustomed–a shopping cart, passwords, the ability to compare similar products, and verification or confirmation of orders.
  5. Be creative. The site now features a service through which schools in the district can put excess items up for sale to other schools. It also allows vendors to post items at special sale prices and/or alert potential buyers to group discounts on products.