Chemical & Engineering News

March 31, 1997


Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society

Ron Dagani
C&EN Washington


People don't change that much from one year to the next. A person might put on or lose some weight, revamp a hairstyle, develop a new wrinkle. The changes usually are incremental and gradual, and are more easily discerned as a trend over longer time periods.

Pittcon is like that, too. Companies and employees come and go, booths are redesigned, new technologies and new instrumen ts replace older ones. But Pittcon, even as it evolves and changes in a thousand small ways, preserves its essential nature from one year to the next.

This year, though, one could discern a sea change that is sure to be magnified in coming years: Pittcon, having recently discovered the Internet, now has begun to embrace it in a big way. At last year's exposition in Chicago, the companies that had already established a presence on the World Wide Web tended to do little more than discreetly note their web addresses in their literature.

But when Pittcon '97 - the 48th Pittsburgh Conference & Exposition on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy - rolled into Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center in mid-March, the Internet connection suddenly was pervasive, prominent, and unmistakable. Web addresses were splashed on the walls of exhibitors' booths, on video monitors (which seemed to be everywhere), and on souvenir pens, not to mention product literature. Besides the more traditional offerings, visitors to many booths were offered a mouse-driven tour of the company's web site. Pittcon had been transformed into Cyber Pittcon.

Several company representatives hailed the emergence of the Internet at Pittcon as a "very significant" event with "tremendously positive impact." Electronic mail and especially the World Wide Web are enabling companies and their customers to interact in a new way that is not constrained by work schedules and geography . Customers can easily locate product information on the web, and in some cases, even purchase products on the spot.

In a recent survey of 1,040 analytical instrument users, K. C. Associates, a market research firm in Wilmington, Del., found that two-thirds of them have Internet access, either at work, home, or both. The survey also found that 47% of respondents with Internet access have used it to get information on analytical instruments and/or instrument manufacturers. To be sure, customers learn about instruments through a variety of other information sources, such as advertisements, buyers' guides, colleagues, sales representatives, and trade shows like Pittcon. But the survey results indicate that the Internet is the only information source whose usage as the preferred source is increasing, according to K. C. Warawa, president of K. C. Associates. She presented the results at the annual breakfast briefing hosted by Centcom Ltd., the advertising sales management company for C&EN and other American Chemical Society publications.

Another speaker at the Centcom breakfast - Douglas A. Berthiaume, president and chief executive officer of Waters Corp., Milford, Mass. - mentioned the Internet's power to remove communication barriers at all interfaces between different groups of people.

On the exposition floor, it was clear that companies differ in their experience and comfort with the Internet. For some, like Fisher Scientific, Pittsburgh, it was the central focus of its booth. Visitors could sip coffee and browse through the on-line Fisher catalog (http://www.fisher1.com) at the Fisher Internet Café, which was styled after the cybercafes that have been popping up around the U.S. If you're a busy academic, said G. W. (Skip) Fortnam, business systems support manager at Fisher, "you can surf the Internet all night" and even place orders for Fisher products. Once a Fisher account is established, the customer can even arrange payment electronically.

Fisher has had a web site for almost a year and a half. Some other early cyberspace entrants are already on their secon d web sites. PerSeptive Biosystems of Framingham, Mass., for example, had a "clunk y" site for a year before it was replaced with a better one last September, said Brian D. Musselman, a marketing director with the firm. The new site (http://www. pbio.com) features a 300-page catalog, although products cannot be ordered electronically.

Columbia, Md.-based Shimadzu Scientific Instruments has been a web denizen for two years, and its site was redesigned about six months ago, according to marketing communications coordinator M. Colleen Bixler, who keeps the site up to date. The web page (http://www.shimadzu.com) gets thousands of hits a month, she said, and "I'm surprised the number keeps growing" - she thought it would have stabilized by now. The site offers product and other information, but the company has no plans to allow customers to buy directly from the site because the Intern et does not provide a secure way to transfer funds, Bixler said.

Security is a concern, conceded Michele M. Garigliano, R&D product manager at Hewlett-Packard, Wilmington, Del., but as people become more comfortable with the Internet, security concerns will lessen. HP has put its consumables catalog on the web (http://www.hp.com/go/chem), and since January, customers have been able to order chromatography columns, septa, and other products on-line. HP established its foothold on the web only about six months ago.

Another newcomer to the web is Philadelphia-based Bio-Rad Laboratories. Its site (http://www.biorad.com) opened only about two weeks before Pittcon began, which helps explain why the firm wasn't displaying the address on a banner. "We weren't sure it would be up and running for the show," said Christina Carden Shields, Bio-Rad's marketing communications manager. The web page gives ordering information, and the company is considering offering on-line ordering, she added .

Micromass, of Beverly, Mass., not only had a booth at Pittcon '97, it also has a virtual Pittcon booth on the web (http://www.micromass.co.uk). A visitor to the virtual booth can view the displayed mass spectrometry systems from different angles and vantage points, but it's certainly not the same as visiting Micromass' real-life booth.

One day, though, it may be possible for anyone to visit a virtual Pittcon without leaving the home or office. Using the appropriate computer technology, a visitor would be able to stroll down the aisles at Pittcon in cyberspace, enter any booth, and inspect instruments and get information about them.

Could such rapidly escalating capabilities of the Internet one day make it unnecessary for companies to exhibit at Pittcon? When C&EN posed this question to a number of company representatives in Atlanta, reactions ranged from a concerned "Now that's a scary thought!" to an exasperated "God, I wish." But none of the respondents was ready to accept the notion that the Internet could ever replace Pittcon, which this year attracted more than 30,000 people.

For most people, several exhibitors said, there's no substitute for physically seeing the instrument running and talking about it face-to-face with a sales representative. As Robert J. Rosenthal put it: "People buy from people." Rosenthal is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Thermo Optek Corp., a subsidiary of Thermo Instrument Systems, Frankl in, Mass.

Although some companies allow customers to purchase consumables over the Internet, they still prefer to sell big-ticket analytical instruments the traditional way, such as by getting sales leads at Pittcon. Thus, it came as no surprise to hear James D. Meinhart, a product manager at JEOL USA, Peabody, Mass., say, "We have no plans to stop coming to Pittcon." In his view, "This is the show you have to be at, whether you have a web page or not." Undoubtedly, the sponsors of Pittcon - the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh - would be happy to hear that.

Although the Internet is widely viewed by companies as just another avenue for them to interact with their customers, it can offer some real advantages. For example, a web site is especially useful in countries where the company doesn't have a physical presence, said Rosenthal. Furthermore, "You can be an incredibly small organization and look incredibly big" on the web, Rosenthal pointed out.

Many web sites offer customers detailed specifications on the company's products, but that information also is then freely available to that company's competitors when they visit the site. Such information was never that easy for competitors to get before. And while it may be heartening to see your company's web site being visited thousands of times a month, warns one marketing director, be aware that many of those hits could be competitors knocking at your door.

In any case, the Internet is a new frontier for most laboratory supply and analytical instrument companies. And it is becoming a valuable way for them to find new customers for their products, according to Elizabeth J. Beard, a sales specialist with Fisher Technology Group (FTG), a Pittsburgh-based company that develops, licenses, and supports software systems and related services for electronic marketing and procurement.

At a seminar on electronic commerce sponsored by FTG in Atlanta, Beard told an interesting anecdote about FTG's sister company, Fisher Scientific. Shortly after Fisher Scientific began taking orders at its new web site, it received a $4,600 order from a company that Fisher had never even heard of. That new customer - who came out of the blue and might not otherwise have been found - has already purchased $145,000 worth of lab supplies from Fisher Scientific. Fisher Scientific's sales have already increased 3 to 5% as a result of its Internet initiative, Beard pointed out.

And as she further noted, one industry analyst has predicted that companies that are committed to the web today will generate 10 to 20% of their profits through on-line channels by 1999.

Fisher Scientific is part of an electronic shopping mall called ProcureNet (http://www.procurenet.com) that was set up by FTG. The mall was designed to simplify the purchasing process for buyers and to help suppliers and distributors "avoid the Internet sprawl by grouping them with other vendors who market to the same customers." ProcureNet already has some 23 "live store fronts," Beard said, and it gets some 400,000 to 500,000 visitors per month. About 70% of the visitors go to Fisher Scientific's store. In January alone, $1 million in orders was processed using e-mail and fax ordering. FTG is gearing up to have 200 stores in the mall by year-end. And it expects to transact $10 million in business by the end of 1997.

Beard said credit card ordering on the Internet is coming, but only for private networks or malls - not for ProcureNet, which is a public mall. The credit card number would not be transmitted electronically. Rather, a customer would first set up a purchasing account, and the account number would be mapped to the stored credit card number.

As a company becomes more comfortable using the Internet, said Beard, it's a good idea to tie the corporate web site to other operational activities, such as inventory and customer service. Indeed, some companies are already doing that. For example, during a breakfast briefing, Chris van Ingen, a Hewlett-Packard sales and marketing manager, told the trade press that the company is setting up worldwide customer service centers that can be accessed on the Internet. "Our ultimate goal is to have global coverage," he said.

The search for new customers, whether through the Internet or not, has been an abiding interest at Pittcon, and it has taken some companies in unexpected directions. For example, in a speech at the Centcom breakfast, Louis T. Rosso, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Beckman Instruments, Fullerton, Calif., explained - with tongue firmly in cheek - how a recent order has helped Beckman gain entry into a new market segment.

"We have received a multiunit order from DreamWorks [SKG], the Steven Spielberg studio, and it's for the new film' Jurassic Park II,'" Rosso began. "We consider this an ideal order. It fits our strategy for entering the field of molecular paleontology. There's no installation, there 's no training, in fact, there's no working parts. They only want external covers. These are to be used in a lab scene with dinosaurs in which the entire set is to be destroyed. So the only added cost we've got in this whole transaction is a little change in our warranty. It now reads, 'In the event of damage or destruction of a Beckman product due to trampling, thumps of tails, or devouring by dinosaurs, our warranty will be null and void.' On the plus side, we may have discovered a new consumables market, and I really hope the dinosaurs like our products.



PEERING INTO THE ANALYTICAL CRYSTAL BALL



CHROMATOGRAPHY, MASS SPECTROMETRY



OPTICAL SPECTROSCOPY






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Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society.