Virtually Sold On The Idea
By Marc Stengel
OCTOBER 20, 1997: If you've been lured into believing that the Internet is just an information superhighway speeding you from one bored surf to another, it's time to stand corrected. For the car shopper, the Internet has become a giant parking lot where you can peruse inventory and kick "virtual" tires to an extent that wasn't even imaginable only three years ago.
Under a blaring front-page headline, the industry weekly Automotive News suggested in February that the "Infant Internet threatens the 'old way' for dealers." By giving car shoppers access to what amounts to a national inventory of vehicles, the Web threatens to transform dealership salespeople from deal-makers into order-takers. "If information is power," the article suggests, "then the Internet can tilt the balance of power toward the customer, turning the dealer into a passive agent."
Indeed, so much is happening so fast that in the eight months since the article appeared, the dimensions of car shopping over the Internet have expanded exponentially. While services such as the highly publicized Microsoft CarPoint and AutoSite are almost exclusively devoted to new-car sales, it is perhaps in the used-car arena where the greatest opportunities lie. Certainly, that's what is attracting the most creative commercial approaches on the Internet. Accordingly, the following overview is intended most of all as an entry-level primer for people interested in "working the Web" to help buy or sell used cars.
Each site listed (and by extension, each site provider) has a different agenda, and it pays to explore what that agenda is. For example, the well-marketed Auto-By-Tel site is actually a giant referral service with a national reach but no actual inventory of its own. Other sites represent alliances of dealers in a limited geographical area; one such consortium, the Atlanta-based Used Car Network (UCN), owns not only an interest in the Web site itself but also in all of the inventory searchable in its database.
In compiling this alphabetical list, no attempt has been made to rank or rate the actual experience of using each service. As the "virtual marketplace" for automobiles matures, however, it is expected that shoppers' experiences will vary widely. As you sample the following Web sites, it pays to keep in mind that the Internet's greatest strength is also its chief weakness: It's a vast, comprehensive, yet decentralized universe where it's possible to accomplish many things--but not always what you may have in mind at the moment.
An online magazine with special, monthly "cover stories" and a wealth of outside links. New and used cars are searchable from inventories of affiliated dealers throughout the U.S. and Canada.
A bare-bones site affiliated with Warranty Advantage extended-warranty company. A Nationwide Vehicle Search function locates new and used cars for a $49 fee.
One of the best-recognized Internet sales services to date. Initially a referral service for new cars only, ABT now features a Used Car Cyberstore linking the certified inventory of affiliated dealers.
A national dealer network encompassing both new- and used-car inventories. For a $20 fee, individuals may also post electronic used-car classifieds. A "vehicle request" form allows special searches for vehicles not in the database.
An over-elaborate site, complete with a dinky soundtrack featuring The Beatles' "Drive My Car." No searchable database; instead, shoppers file an electronic "quote request" for a specific new or used car, which prompts a reply from the most suitable dealer.
Bills itself as the Ultimate Automotive Buyers' Guide, and it could very well be--but the emphasis is on "guide." For its new-car sales, the site is inextricably linked with Auto-By-Tel (described above). Nevertheless, the attraction of AutoSite lies in its easy-browsing resources for new-car reviews, images, and prices; used-car book values; and minor technical trouble-shooting and how-to advice.
An easy-to-use, well-designed smorgasbord of databases comprising both dealer inventories and free private postings for both vehicles-to-sell and vehicles-wanted. The home page allows direct searches of both new and used vehicles, as well as a variety of research resources, including an Internet newsgroup.
A vast inventory of private-party used vehicles only, explorable with an excellent search engine. Motorcycles and RVs are included, as are much older cars sorted by decade back to 1950; all vehicles made before 1950 are filed here under "Antiques." Calling All Cars is not limited to a particular region; it offers the services of a "personal agent" to assist finding a car, and it promotes a relationship with AutoVantage for new-car sales.
The combined online inventory of this used-car superstore, which boasts giant showrooms primarily on the East Coast. After browsing the database, prospects for a particular vehicle should call ahead to confirm whether it's still in stock.
Apparently designed to become Microsoft's 800-pound gorilla--or even its 10-ton truck--among interactive auto sites. This site is attractive and feature-packed with reviews and images. Its new-car sales, however, depend upon "qualified dealer referrals," and its stock of used cars appears via classified ad on an electronic bulletin board.
An elegant presentation. Searches for new and used vehicles begin directly from the home page. Used-car inventories, however, are "dealer only." Direct-connect to the Dealer Net chat room is a nice touch.
Operated by the Oxford Resources Group, PAO only includes used-car inventories at selected dealers in California, New Jersey, and New York. Affiliations in other states are promised "soon."
A network of used-car dealers in the Greater Atlanta area. Shoppers get 60 minutes of free search time; viewing the results requires a membership ID number (provided online). UCN president Ralph Doran is already planning similar networks in other metro areas nationwide.
Off the floor
Not to be outdoneWith a sense of timing so typical for its girth and bulk, GM has just announced that it too will embrace online interactive car sales "in a few months." Despite the industry-jarring response of consumers to Web-based auto shopping from home (see above), GM's Chief Information Officer Ralph Szygenda told the trade publication Inter@ctive Week that GM will soon "allow buyers to customize, order, and purchase cars through online kiosks in its dealer outlets and eventually over the World Wide Web." Wouldn't want those pesky consumers to stray too-o-o far from the showroom, now would we?
Jumpin' Jag FlashJaguar leaped aggressively into the '98 model year last Thursday with the official release of its new V8-powered XJ sedans. Completely absent from next year's lineup is the venerable inline-6 that has powered Jags since the '50s. In its stead is the powerful 4.0-liter V8, which first appeared this year in the stunning XK8 coupe and convertible. Customers have a Hobson's Choice of good news: On the one hand, they may want to applaud Jaguar's decision to hold prices precisely at '97 levels, despite the new motor and all-new interiors, instruments, and electrics. Or they may prefer to rave about the new supercharged-V8 XJR sedan, whose eye-popping 370 horsepower is good for a blistering 5.4 seconds, 0-to-60. Be prepared to wait 6 to 8 months for the R-car, however; Thoroughbred Motors' Robin Guidicy says he has presold every one he can get his hands on.
Speaking of frenzy...A nice bit of free advertising last week, wouldn't you say, to have the Wall Street Journal gush about Mercedes' new M-Class sport/utility. Under the page B1 headline, "Make That M for Mania," the Journal marveled at the successful blend of cleverness and cachet that has resulted in the M320's virtual nationwide sellout only weeks after its debut. Just the same, Middle Tennessee Motor Cars' Jay Page can afford to be philosophical about it: "They're only producing about 35,000 units for the first year," he says of the All-Activity Vehicle being built in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "Heck, Ford builds 35,000 white Ford Explorers in a year." (Actually, so far in '97 Ford has built an average of 34,616 Explorers a month--in a whole bunch of colors.)
Vaya con diosNissan announced in Tokyo last week that it will shift to Mexico the entire production of the Sentra models it currently builds jointly in Smyrna and Aguascalientes. The capacity thus vacated at Smyrna will be given over to--you guessed it--a new sport/utility vehicle that will begin production as early as November 1999.
Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at (615) 385-2930 or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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