Talk about rapid change: Just four years ago only 8 percent of independent insurance agents used the Internet. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 93 percent. E-mail is the most popular application (97 percent), followed by locating business information (75 percent), marketing information (53 percent), and retrieving carrier client materials (50 percent). These statistics come from the recently released 2000 Agency Universe Study conducted by Future One, a cooperative effort of the Independent Insurance Agents of America (IIAA) and 19 insurance companies.

According to the study, while 29 percent of independent agencies have been involved in a merger or acquisition since the last study four years ago, these have been stable consolidations: There are 42,000 independent agencies today, just a 5 percent decrease since 1996. About 72 percent classify their businesses as corporations.

"The sense we got is that people are very high on this business," says Madelyn Flannagan, assistant vice president of research and development for IIAA, who notes that 53 percent of the 3,000 survey respondents said that this is a time of great opportunity for independent agents. "We're seeing a lot of new start-ups, a lot of young people coming in or staying in the business, and a lot of women and minorities seeing it as an opportunity."

What can make independent agents even happier? Close to 100 percent agreed that finding carriers who will maintain a commitment to the specific markets that particular agencies are in is important.

Other findings: o 98 percent of agencies have some non-insurance revenue: primarily investment-product commissions (29 percent), real estate sales and services (20 percent), and banking product sales (8 percent).

o 78 percent said that "providing great service" is the key to their continued success.

o 33 percent believe that bank insurance sales remain a threat to their business.

o 35 percent believe that the Internet offers a business opportunity.

o 8 percent think that their clients would consider buying insurance online.

o 78 percent reported that they hope to find additional sources of business revenue, such as expanding into non-insurance financial services (41 percent) or partnering with a bank (30 percent).

Launched in 1983, the Agency Universe Study will now be conducted every two years. For more information, call (800) 221-7917 or visit IIAA's Web site at www.independentagent.com.