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On Web, Uncle Sam Shops for Wares of Contracting Elves

By Barbara J. Saffir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 11, 1996; Page A23

Move over, Neiman Marcus. GSA Advantage is here.

The General Service Administration's Internet shopping site may not really rival Neiman Marcus -- or even Sears, for that matter -- but its newly expanded online catalogue is drawing in federal shoppers across the nation.

The web site, which has been in business for just over a year, started out as a computer marketplace created in response to the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, which called for more off-the-shelf purchases and less paperwork and allowed charge card purchases of up to $2,500.

More than 145,000 products from 268 contractors are available online, including office supplies, computers, furniture, linens, hardware and building supplies -- some of which are made by prisoners and the disabled. By October GSA hopes to have all 4 million to 5 million items listed in the Federal Supply Schedules on the site. "We had $5 million [in sales] . . . last year," said Teresa Sorrenti of the GSA's Federal Supply Service, and "we've had $1 million a month this year."

Anyone with Internet access can browse the site, but only federal workers with a government-issued Visa IMPACT credit card are eligible to buy online. Targeted not just at procurement officers but to those employees who actually use the products, the site was designed to be "current and easy to use," said Sorrenti.

In a point-and-click Windows environment (a Netscape or Microsoft browser is required for credit card orders), users can buy everything from Scotchguarded linen wall coverings ($6.72 a yard), to psychrometers (they measure relative humidity at $20.49 a pop), champagne-colored pillow cases ($28.10 a dozen), pocket protectors (17 cents each), air freshener (at $1.24 a can -- it "leaves a mild, pleasant odor and contains no formaldehyde" -- the catalog says) and 9 1/2-inch, tempered, heat-treated, steel hunting knives ($17.93 each). A whole fleet of vehicles is featured, but federal shoppers can't buy a car straight off the showroom site just yet -- that's planned for the future. And so are electronic storefronts for federal agencies.

Although the site seems about as "user-friendly" as web sites get, brand names are seldom mentioned and the descriptions leave much to the imagination. Shoppers won't find a photo of the "walnut-finished veneer surface executive-style table," but they will learn that its "wooden legs are firmly attached by rail bolts and have brass-colored metal foot sockets."

And that is not the only problem.

For Paul Pinaula, a logistics manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the main problem with the system is time. "I can get material delivered to me within 24 hours from the private sector. . . . With GSA it takes three to 10 days," he said.

But James L. White, a civilian electronics technician at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida thinks just the opposite. One of GSA Advantage's first users, White said that under the old procurement system he had to fill out a form in triplicate, send it to base supply for processing and if he was lucky, he received his order within a month. "It used to take six weeks to get what you wanted. . . . We've chopped three weeks off the system," he said.

But even he isn't totally satisfied. "The system bogs down . . . in the afternoon," he said. "So I do all my ordering in the morning."

The Internet address for GSA is; GSA Advantage is at

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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