$22.9 million! The Web's biggest e-sale?

Perhaps you've felt squeamish clicking that "buy" button on an e-commerce Web site, worried you're paying good money for somethingyou've never seen. If so, Richard Hodkinson's online purchase last week might offer you some reassurance.

Perhaps you've felt squeamish clicking that "buy" button on an e-commerce Web site, worried you're paying good money for something you've never seen. If so, Richard Hodkinson's online purchase last week might offer you some reassurance.

Hodkinson, the president of a charter plane company, spent nearly $23 million on a used aircraft with one mouse click. What's more, he'd only seen the plane virtually, via a 3-D Web page tour. The seller, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., says it's the largest single e-commerce transaction to date.

Perhaps you'd think spending $23 million would warrant the extra time for a personal visit, or at least more time and attention than a consumer might give to the online purchase of a few books or computer gear. Not really, says Hodkinson. The way he sees it, big-ticket purchases make more sense in the e-commerce world than small consumer purchases.

"The guy who puts out $23 million for a Gulfstream has less time to go window shopping than a consumer," he said. "I spent five hours on this instead of five actual days of being away from the office and doing (the research)."

Normally, airplane sales require time-consuming back-and-forth steps, ending in either a flight to go see the plane or the cost of flying the plane to the prospective buyer. A good Web page tour cuts down on both the time and the expense of the purchase process.

There's actually less mystery buying a plane than there is buying groceries or flowers online, Hodkinson said.

"A Gulfstream is a Gulfstream. What we were looking for were colors, seat outline, the interior design," he said. That made a Web-based virtual tour of the plane perfectly adequate for a purchase decision. "The real research comes with the maintenance history of the airplane."

'Not for impulse buys'
Gulfstream launched its used-aircraft Web site in June, but this is its first e-tail sale. But don't mistake that for low volume -- the aircraft business is hardly like high-volume retail industries. Georgia-based Gulfstream, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, makes about 65 planes a year and currently has only six used craft in its inventory. There's a limited number of potential consumers and a handful of known competitors.

"We're not looking for high traffic, trying to get a lot of hits," said David Harris, Gulfstream's Web site manager.

"This site is not for impulse buys." Although, he added, Internet startup executives are welcome to visit. "If Jezz Bezos (CEO of Amazon.com) wants to buy a plane over the Net, we're here. We'll take his order."

Hodkinson runs a six-plane charter service called Elite Aviation in California. He essentially bought the plane for a client, which made the Gulfstream Web site all the more attractive.

"Instead of having to drag the client to the plane ... I called the client and gave him the site address, and we went through the airplane together. He asked questions like, "Does it have this?" and I could say, click here, let's look."

While Hodkinson inspected the plane and signed a letter of intent to purchase it over the Net, the sale is contingent on a physical inspection prior to closing. Gulfstream's asking price for the plane was $22.9 million, but Hodkinson said that wasn't the exact sale price, which he would not disclose.

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