Findings from research commissioned by accountants Deloitte & Touche and software house iE showed that for 66% of the societies surveyed, the cost of implementing an e-commerce infrastructure was proving to be prohibitively high.
Fifty-seven per cent of companies did not have any e-commerce capability whatsoever, and of the remaining 43% that did, the majority had information-only Web sites, few of which ventured beyond providing a basic online application form.
When asked what were the main drivers for implementing an e-commerce initiative, the majority of respondents cited improved customer services and customer retention, whereas only 20% saw it as a means of cutting costs, and only one in four said such an initiative would enable cross-selling.
Jerry Mulle, director of the e-business group at iE, said he believed there was a lack of understanding in the sector in general about customers' online requirements.
"What I don't see happening is a real understanding of what customers want online. Building societies have to remain about customer service and nowadays, having a customer service offering means having a good Internet presence."
Board-level support would be necessary before the situation would change, he said. "To a degree, it's [the] internal culture that has to change - the successful ones have had a very innovative CEO or IT director at board level," he said.
But Ken Pilkington, e-commerce manager at the Cheshire Building Society, said one of the main drivers behind the society's recent implementation of a range of new Internet services was a desire to meet customer demand, as reported in Computer Weekly last week.
"Research shows that people want to do their business when it's convenient for them, not just when the doors are open. We wanted to open up services out of hours as a direct route to our customers and as a way of increasing our reach to potential customers.
"The Internet channel is seen as complementary to our existing services, not as competition."
Although cost had been a significant consideration, Pilkington agreed that board-level buy-in had been crucial to the initiative. "No venture of this size can be driven without commitment from the top because it's a big venture.
"We were lucky because our chief executive [formerly head of direct channels at NatWest] had experience of these technologies and could understand the benefits of it," he said.
Mulle said that given the sector's history of productive co-operation, a collaborative effort may be the way forward.
"They could run their major credit card business, or retail funds applications, through one platform," Mulle added.