As competition for the 401(k) dollar tightens, online intermediaries are becoming a necessity for brokers seeking to match their corporate clients with the right plans.

With the rise of Web sites like 401Konnect.com, 401KExchance.com, 401KDuediligence.com, and the upcoming Buildyourown401k.com, competition among intermediaries is getting fierce, as each tries to outdo the others for a piece of the market.

Two-thirds of the 401(k) plans purchased in 1997 were bought through intermediaries, according to Spectrem Group of Hartford, Conn.

"Getting information online makes things easier," said Gerry O'Connor, a consultant at Spectrem. "It is an efficient way of getting everything out there."

The key to being a good 401(k) intermediary, as it is for other Web companies, is to offer something different, Mr. O'Connor said. Many sites aimed at 401(k) brokers are following that advice.

The 401Konnect.com site has a proprietary database of 89 providers. Brokers give information about the type of plan they want, and the database selects programs that meet these criteria.

The password-protected 401Kduediligence.com service, offered by the Center for Due Diligence in Chicago, analyzes and researches plans and issues reports similar to the analyses the center has provided for 10 years. Brokers pay an annual fee of $5,000 to use the site.

At 401Kexchance.com, brokers enter a plan's size and the number of participants and get information on 15 providers that meet the broker's needs. The site then selects and offers a free, more specific analysis of 10 plans, which brokers can personalize for their clients.

James Pritchard, who is about to launch Buildyourown401k.com, said sites such as these are just the beginning.

Retirement plans and Web sites that cater to brokers, companies, and intermediaries go hand in hand, he said. "We are going to keep seeing more and more of these sites. There is a lot of competition in the 401(k) market, and whoever can offer the best services will be looked to most often online."

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