Schools are being tempted by the promise of online purchasing of goods and products. Online purchasing can have numerous benefits: speedy transactions, less administrative paperwork, easy price-comparison shopping, and up-to-date catalogs. But it’s far from perfect at this point, and far less than half of the districts in the United States and Canada conduct a significant portion of their purchases electronically.

In addition, many suppliers offer other ways to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of purchasing, but without the investment in an online system. These methods–such as bulk purchasing, just-in-time delivery, or direct purchases from manufacturers–may provide greater short-term benefits than a leap to web-based purchasing.

After conducting a survey of 300 districts, the author suggests that school and district administrators should take the following steps before committing to the web for purchasing:

  1. Assess needs. Some types of purchasing methods are better suited for certain districts, based on a district’s size, current level of administrative efficiency, size of a central warehouse, and purchasing autonomy provided to teachers and staff. For example, a district that has warehouses and efficient delivery from warehouses to schools might consider group purchasing (electronic or non-electronic) rather than a decentralized, online approach.
  2. Understand the upfront costs. Many online systems require significant upfront costs. These may be direct costs, such as computers and programming, or indirect costs of staff and teacher training. Figure out how quickly these will be offset by savings.
  3. Know that size matters. Small districts can realize great savings from coordinated purchases from selected suppliers–whether performed electronically or not. But web-based systems may not offer incremental benefits. On the other end of the scale, large districts may find that an online system makes sense because it reduces layers of administration and its costs are small on a per-user basis.
  4. Start with non-electronic purchasing. These low-cost projects, such as coordinating purchases from a particular supplier, will bring immediate savings. Successes in these areas build support for greater cooperation over the web.
  5. Consider credit card purchasing. Credit card purchasing programs have a bit of a negative reputation, as abuses have occurred. However, an effectively run credit card program can provide teachers and staff with much of the autonomy and speed of a web-based system, especially if credit cards are combined with an online catalog.