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Auto firms head online
Firms offer all sorts of online deals to entice customers.


WSJ Interactive Edition
July 6, 1999 6:32 AM PT

Auto marketers say they are using the information to track and communicate with customers in ways they couldn't before. What is more, auto makers are discovering the respondents to their electronic giveaways become real customers at a higher rate than consumers targeted by other media.




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In an industry that offers online buying and threatens to cut out dealers altogether, auto manufacturers are trying to stay ahead of the game.

In April, Buick offered an e-coupon for $500 off the purchase price of a Buick Regal. Mark Hines, brand manager for Regal, said the deal was the first of its kind and a marketing triumph. More than 25% of Regal's retail sales -- just over 3,000 cars within a three-month period -- were sold with the e-coupon. That is a much better rate of leads resulting in sales than the minuscule returns from typical direct-mail appeals.

Roger Adams, general manager of General Motors Corp.'s Buick division, said a greater percentage of its advertising money now goes toward Web projects, and Buick plans to sponsor one major Internet-driven event every month this year.

"It's really changed the way we market and promote," he said. "Now, we'd never run a promotion without an Internet aspect to it."

DaimlerChrysler site
Almost a year before the new DaimlerChrysler AG PT Cruiser -- a car/minivan hybrid -- is available on dealer lots, marketers have put it on the Internet. Web customers who want more information about the PT Cruiser are asked a series of questions and then sent updates on the status of the Cruiser.

Some customers who requested information also received a free credit card-shaped Swiss Army knife in the mail. Chrysler's communications manager Jay Kuhnie says the gadgets were intended to demonstrate a link between the versatility of the tool and the car.

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Online auto dealers drive competition

Chrysler's communication specialist Dan Gliniecki said the Web site has been "a home run" for the company. Since its launch six months ago, he said, over 20,000 people have used it to request information about the Cruiser.

Hernando Conwi, manager of new media at Nissan Motor Co., said almost 40% of leads generated during the launch period of the new Nissan Xterra came from the car's Web site. Select customers who signed up to buy the Xterra on its Web site received purchase offers for accessories such as mountain-bike racks, ski and snowboard carriers, and water-resistant seat covers.

Mr. Conwi said Internet responders convert to car sales at an extremely high rate -- much higher than other demographic groups -- and that dealers should focus as closely on their Internet site as they do on making sure their dealership is in order.

Source of Leads for Toyota
The Internet is now the largest source of sales leads for Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. sales arm, generating about a million and a half a month, says Steve Sturm, vice president of marketing at Toyota.

Auto-industry consultant Mark Rikess, who assists auto manufacturers in formulating Internet strategies, said most still have a long way to go in being able to use Internet information efficiently. Web sites are set up to handle a large number of hits, he said, but they are not yet adept at handling sales leads. The transition from auto manufacturers and the dealers that deliver vehicles to consumers isn't always smooth, he says.

"The dealer wants to slow down a process, and that's not what the cyberguest wants," Mr. Rikess said. "The cyberguest, as we call them, wants fast, fair, simple service."

But if automotive e-marketing is a work in progress, the pace is accelerating, and the deals are getting more aggressive.

Ford ran an Internet sweepstakes in April and May offering a free rental from Hertz Corp. From late April until June of this year, Toyota sponsored an online game called Tundra Madness in which customers raced each other on a Microsoft game site to win a new Toyota Tundra pickup truck.

GM's Oldsmobile division, which is struggling to stop a decade-long slide in sales, offers a $50 Internet gift certificate, redeemable at stores like Pier 1 Imports and Macy's, for filling out a Web survey and test-driving an Oldsmobile. Many such offers are only available on the Net.

"The Internet is the most efficient and effective means of generating interest right now," says Oldsmobile's advertising and sales director Mike Sands. "The digital world allows us to be where consumers are, so that's what we're focusing on."

Mr. Sands said Oldsmobile sees Internet marketing as a way to reinvent itself in the eyes of younger, Web-savvy customers. He said they also want to use Internet information to create a database that combines a customer's past habits with his or her current interests and then serves it up in a profile.

Some of the data gleaned from customers who bite at e-freebies isn't just used to sell new cars. Honda Motor Co.'s U.S. sales arm is using its Web site to build a database called "the Garage."

When a customer requests information about a vehicle and gives information on the company's Web site, Honda mails customers what they have requested. But based on a customer's profile in the Garage, Honda may also mail information about other Honda products, such as lawnmowers, says marketing director Andy Boyd.

"The point is not to hit them with a deluge of brochures they're not interested in," he said. "We just have to figure out what does interest them."

 

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Online auto dealers drive competition
Web sites are battling for their slice of the $1 trillion car market.


By Fara Warner, WSJ Interactive Edition
February 18, 1999 8:42 AM PT

A new battle is heating up on the Web, where auto makers and dealers are vying with online car-buying services for the loyalty and dollars of U.S. drivers.

The car-buying services on the Web, such as Autobytel.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq:MSFT) CarPoint, began mostly as matchmakers for car buyers and sellers. The idea: The would-be car buyer visits the buying service's Web page, learns what's available and is steered to a dealer who has registered with the service and pays it a fee.


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But in recent months the services have expanded their activities to include signing up owners for personalized Web pages and offering financing and insurance online -- traditionally the turf of auto makers and dealers.

'We don't need them, and we don't want them.'
-- Patrick Steiner, Internet manager, Superior Acura


The stakes are huge. Consumers spend about $1 trillion a year buying new cars, used cars, financing and insurance. To keep as much of that money to themselves as they can, car companies and dealers are storming onto the Web and trying to elbow out the car-buying sites.

"There's not a necessity in the marketplace for the online services," says Ann Noel Blakney, director of General Motors Corp.'s online program, BuyPower, which goes national in March with more than 5,600 dealers. By contrast, Microsoft's CarPoint has 2,200 dealers representing a variety of vehicle brands. What's more, Ms. Blakney says, GM "can offer proprietary information such as what our incentives are on cars and actual inventory at a dealer. Online services won't have access to that, and we won't give them that kind of information."

Don't want them
Individual dealers are also getting savvy about the Internet and setting up their own sites to bypass the independent services. "We don't need them, and we don't want them," says Patrick Steiner, Internet manager at Superior Acura in Kansas City, Kan.

Mr. Steiner doesn't subscribe to any of the online car services, preferring to draw customers into his dealership with his own Web site. Once someone buys a car from him, he puts the purchaser's photo up on his site and then sends e-mail to give the new owner a look. "Hopefully, they are at work and they show their friends," he says. "It has a big snowball effect." He also sends his owners invitations to barbecues and lets them know about service specials.

Big auto-retailing companies also are significantly reducing their dependence on online services. "We've got to work our way back up the clickstream," says Scott Barrett, chief information officer for Republic Industries Inc., the country's largest auto retailer, which expects to sell some $500 million of cars through the Internet this year.

Instead of relying on independent online services, Republic's close to 400 franchises will receive sales leads and build relationships through its AutoNation USA site. The company also is doing its own training of Internet sales consultants, an offering that had previously been a big selling point of the online services to dealers.

In the near future, consumers logging on to Autonationusa.com will have the choice of surfing it by themselves or having an "Internet vehicle consultant" help them search for the right car or truck. Mr. Barrett already is testing the idea near the company's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., headquarters. When consumers are ready to buy, they will be passed off to an Internet sales consultant at a dealership near them.

The car-buying sites are fighting back. Microsoft, which has more free cash in the bank than GM and greater access to complex software programs, is moving fast to beef up CarPoint. In mid-November, Microsoft added a page to the CarPoint site that allows owners to sign up to receive information and product offers tailored to the vehicles they drive. For example, owners get an electronic-mail notice when it's time to get their cars' oil changed or to have a fan belt replaced, and will be alerted to manufacturers' recall notices.

Automotive lifestyle management
The next version of the CarPoint owner's page, expected this summer, will encourage owners to take their cars to CarPoint dealers for service as well. Already about 151,000 users have signed up 205,000 vehicles for the services offered through the page, says Alex Simon, group product manager for CarPoint. "We are about automotive lifestyle management," he says. "We've migrated from helping buy a car to personal auto ownership."

The car-buying sites say their independence amounts to a big advantage. After all, online shoppers buy books from Amazon.com, not Random House or Simon & Schuster. "We're trusted intermediaries that offer an overview of the entire market," says Dean DeBiase, president and chief executive officer of Autoweb.com.

Autoweb, which plans to go public this spring, is rolling out a Service Center site that allows consumers to set up service appointments online, get advice from mechanics and surf a service library set up by auto retail chain Pep Boys -- Manny, Moe & Jack. Autoweb, which was the most frequently visited auto Internet site in December according to Media Metrix, also has a "registered users" program, for which 400,000 people have signed up. The plan is to get people to come to the site more than every two or three years when they want to buy a car, Mr. DeBiase says.

"We've morphed from being a lead generator," he says. "We are moving more into community and content as well as commerce."

The online companies say the shift in focus doesn't mean dealers are cut off from creating relationships with consumers. Autobytel.com, which also plans to go public this spring, offers help in setting up dealer Web sites and encourages dealers to get online themselves, says Mark Lorimer, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Still, like the other online services, Autobytel would like the consumer relationship to start and stay with the company. Through Autobytel, car owners can set up a Current Garage and a Wishlist Garage to keep information about cars they own as well as list cars they would like to own. The Wishlist site will alert consumers by e-mail when a car they are interested in becomes available. "We've got a lock on shopping and buying, but we know we have to expand in the ownership area, because it's the longest consumer relationship," Mr. Lorimer says.

In fighting back with BuyPower, GM says its online service, when fully up and running, will help consumers with car shopping, let them finance their auto purchases in minutes, notify them by e-mail when a car needs to be serviced and even offer home mortgages from GM's captive finance company. Down the line, through its own owners' pages, GM will encourage consumers to use BuyPower to purchase almost every product and service associated with owning a vehicle, and a whole lot more.

Ford Motor Co. rolled out new Internet sites in January. Its BuyerConnect site helps shoppers stipulate colors and other design details and find a dealer who can meet those specifications. Ford even sells online used cars just coming off lease to consumers, instead of putting the cars through auctions. Another Ford site, OwnerConnect, offers most of the benefits the other manufacturers and online providers are offering to their Ford-vehicle owners. Ford executives say about 300 people a day are registering their cars on the site.

DaimlerChrysler AG's site offers Get-a-Quote, which will give a consumer a solid price on a vehicle through one of its Five-Star dealers

 

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