Week of February 14, 2000
  Editor's Choice Web Pick
   of the Week

Comro: A Promising Venue for Online Space Searches

Commercial Realty Online (CRO at www.comro.com) is another online addition to the ongoing tsunami of clicks-and-mortar sites, and it looks like a good one.

What you'll find here is a fairly comprehensive guide for finding U.S. office, industrial, and retail space listings, including access to floor plans, photos, maps, and commercial real estate resources. Everything on the site is free for users looking for space, and you don't even need to register.

Users begin by viewing a U.S. state outline map. (And for those who are, at times, somewhat geographically challenged - in other words, about 99-plus percent of us - state outlines include identifying abbreviations.)

That map, though, immediately clues you to one thing that comro.com doesn't have: nationwide penetration. For about a dozen states (particularly in the Rocky Mountain region), CRO doesn't yet have any property listings.

What comro.com does have, though, is pretty solid.
Using the Site

A click on a state gives you access to a searchable database that navigates smoothly. Then you specify the metro in which you're interested. You can narrow your search of that metro by specifying what kind of property you're looking for (office, industrial or retail), plus your square footage and rent parameters.

You can also structure your search to break out the listings by individual city neighborhoods. Or you can search by property name and address, property ID number, or management or leasing companies.

A click on an individual listing will give you a description of the property, plus electronic links to the management agency and the leasing agent. However, don't expect every listing to have floor plans, photos and maps. From our test drive, we found a number that had none of those highly useful bits of visual information.


Spotty Coverage in Some Markets

Some geographic areas in which this site provides listings, however, offer pretty thin gruel.

In Louisville, Ky., for example, we found only one property listed. That listing looked to be a quality CBD high-rise, with more than half a million sq. ft. (45,000 sq. m.) of online space. Nonetheless, that was the Lone Ranger of the Louisville listings.

Users may be able to save some search time by looking in the lower right-hand corner for each metro page. There, you'll find a listing of the total online inventory for that area, broken out by totals for office, industrial and retail space. That may tell some users whether a search of a particular metro is warranted.

Perhaps it's fairer to look at comro.com's market penetration in Chicago. That's where Commercial Realty Online began in 1995. Then, the site was known as "Chicago Office Bulletin," and it was simply a private Bulletin Board System exclusively providing information to the Chicago commercial real estate industry, most of it office info only.

CRO's Chicago roots are reflected in its online listings for the Second City. In the Chicago metro, the site lists 1,542 spaces in 280 buildings. In fact, according to CRO officials, the site lists fully 90 perfect of downtown Chicago's "A" and "B" office market.

If the CRO site catches on (which doesn't require a huge leap of faith to envision), that volume could be more like what you'll find in many of the markets that are profiled online here.


CRO's Growth Roll

And the evidence suggests that comro.com is quickly ramping up its clout. In the last six months, the site has increased its property listings from 300 to 3,000, and site visits have increased tenfold.

That big upsurge in cyberspace has translated into a substantial uptake in the company's physical space requirements. In the last six months, CRO has tripled its staffing, and it's opening new offices in Los Angeles and New York.

Late last year, for example, CRO added a major client, Great Lakes REIT, which is advertising its entire office portfolio on comro.com.

Other major site client listings include the entire commercial property portfolios of Arden Realty in Southern California (which owns 7 percent of the all suburban office space in Southern California), Prime Group Realty Trust, ProLogis, S.L. Green Realty, TrizecHahn Office Properties and The RREEF Funds. Additional major real estate players that have placed listings on the site include The John Buck Co., CB Richard Ellis, Hines, and Jones Lang LaSalle.


The Toolbox from Duhville?
Not Really

The site also offers online news from Commercial Real Estate Direct, most of it general reportage on the commercial real estate industry.

There's also an online "Toolbox" that will likely strike some real estate veterans as something straight out of Duhville. Comro.com's Toolbox includes a "Space Calculator" that's designed to help users figure "how much space your company will need," plus a "Glossary" of "common commercial real estate terms."

But while it's true that that's extremely basic information, a lot of today's fastest-growing companies are the fabled gazelles. And many of those gazelles are neophytes in the real estate game.

In other words, this Toolbox is probably a lot smarter than it may seem.


Site Says It 'Complements' Brokers

So is this site another nail in the coffin of traditional, live-and-in-person real estate brokerage?

Not necessarily, particularly judging from how the CRO site operates.

In the site's explanation of what it does, for example, comro.com goes out of its way to say that it "is not acting in an agency capacity," but only as "an online marketing service for commercial properties available for lease." Indeed, site content includes a brief section describing how comro.com "complements the services of the broker."

That approach recalls a comment that investment banker Charlie Finnie made at a Wharton School conference last year. "Disintermediation is a myth," Finnie contended. "Trusted intermediaries are sitting between buyers and sellers, collecting information that buyers and sellers covet and putting it to the highest and best use."

That may well be true. Nonetheless, some parts of the traditional real estate brokerage sector that have resisted change now seem to be hanging on practically on life support systems. Those that have flourished seem to have internalized that the Internet has forever changed how we live, work and broker.

So we'll see how this so-called myth plays out. In the meantime, comro.com looks like it could be one of the hits within that myth.


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