Wednesday, July 31, 2002

ELYRIA, Ohio - While companies selling Internet solutions to HME companies have largely drowned since the Internet bubble burst two years ago, one of the "solutions" they tried to float as a solution Invacare is now launching.

In June, the manufacturer announced that it would offer a turn-key, Web site development package through a partnership it's struck with 50 Below, a development and marketing company in Duluth, Minn. For $1,860, 50 Below is building, customizing and maintaining transactional sites for Invacare customers.

The sites are equipped with an Invacare product catalog, a transactional application that enables orders and a sales tax program. Customers can update the site daily, use a reporting tool to track hits and marry their e-mail addresses to the new domain name. The program also registers companies with various search engines.

To date, 99 HME providers have signed on. About 40% of those companies maintain other sites, according to Invacare v.p. of e-commerce, Steve Neese.

Those companies may very well keep those sites since 50 Below isn't publishing Web site product catalogs that feature products manufactured by Invacare's competitors.

Business plans that involve launching HME companies into cyberspace date back at least as far as 1998 when Graham-Field signed a Web site development partnership with Medquik Supply. Two years ago, Pride Mobility launched a program that develops Web sites at no charge for customers. Pride says it has developed nearly 1,000 sites.

More recently, the VGM Group bought an Internet company as a bridge into cyberspace for its members. In the past year, VGM has built sites for about two dozen sites. "It's a simple fact of life," said John Friel, VGM's v.p. of Internet services. "It's like the telephone."

Despite the dot-bomb fizzle, Neese said the fundamental appeal of the Internet as a source of information and commerce is still prevalent, especially among the disabled and the over-50 segment of the population. Indeed, now that the hype has died down, perhaps the rightful purveyors of Internet services are rising to the surface.

An Invacare survey has found that 71% of its customer base has Internet access. Neese guesses that about 15% of the company's customers currently maintain Web sites.

For Jeannie Shanholtzer, president and CEO Kansas City Health Systems, being able to sell only Invacare product has not been a problem. The company uses Invacare for a majority of its sales anyway. And the $1,800 price point makes the Invacare option attractive.

"We were given multiple estimates to create our site, anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000, and those did not include e-commerce," said Shanholtzer. HME