The Internet will evolve from an ad medium into an interactive marketing tool that generates repeat business for dealers and automakers, said Len Sherman, a partner at Andersen Consulting in New York.
Sherman, a speaker last month at the National Automobile Dealers Association's symposium in Chicago on industry relations, demonstrated how a manufacturer's Web site could be designed to lure car buyers back to the dealership.
A customer who buys five vehicles over time is worth a $15,000 profit to a dealer and a $10,000 profit to the manufacturer, he said. The profits are higher for the dealer because of the potential to attract new service business.
The Internet's growing popularity makes it a viable medium to talk to customers. Last year, about 6 percent of households used the Internet to shop for a new car and nearly a third of consumers surveyed said they intend to use the Net to make their next car purchase, said Sherman.
The Internet's popularity is greatest among younger buyers. Seventeen percent of first-time buyers shopped for cars on the Internet, he said.
The number of automotive Web sites is also growing. In the last year, almost 3,000 dealers set up Web pages, Sherman pointed out. When you add automakers, parts and accessory providers, repair outlets, finance companies, rental companies and other consumer automotive services, there are 2,700 automotive Web sites, he said.
JOIN THE CLUB
Sherman suggests using 'relationship marketing' on the World Wide Web. When companies use relationship marketing, they customize the delivery of products, services and communications for customers.
Automakers could set up personalized Web sites using current Internet technology. A customer who visits the site faces choices tailored to his or her needs and interests.
Sherman uses an example of an imaginary dealer, Aspen Motors Co.
Aspen sets up a Web site called 'Club Aspen.' Each customer has an identification code he uses to access the club. All of the choices customers make during their visits to the site are recorded and traceable to their identification code.
The first page of the site pictures a highway with the following road signs:
'Down the Road' for making long-term choices such as vehicle purchases, trade-ins and disposals.
'Up Ahead' for answering needs that come up in the near future, such as warranty service and trips.
'Right Now' for immediate needs such as emergencies, diagnosis, repairs.
'Behind You' for account history, which includes such files as service records.
Using a mouse, a customer would point and click on one of the signs to access his service records, set up an appointment for warranty service, or consider a new vehicle, for example.
The Web page also features reminders for recommended maintenance and next warranty service.
RACKING UP SALES
If a customer clicks on the 'Up Ahead' sign, he finds a screen offering a variety of choices, such as preparing for a move, a new baby or a trip. He selects 'planning a trip' to prepare for a ski vacation. The trip planning screen shows a six-item checklist, including:
'Who's Going Where,' which features information on destinations and accommodations.
'The Things We'll Do,' designed to help plan activities.
'The Things We'll Need,' designed to help pack for the trip.
'Things to Prepare,' showing the steps to take to prepare a vehicle, home and ski equipment for the vacation.
'People to Call,' offering a checklist of individuals to call before going away, such as a house sitter or circulation department of a newspaper.
'Tasks to Get Back To,' reminders of what tasks to perform after returning from vacation.
The sequence offers dealers business opportunities, such as the chance to get customers into the service department to weatherize their cars or the chance to sell equipment, such as ski racks.
For example, a customer might click on the 'ski rack' option under 'Things We'll Need.' The next page features a selection of ski racks that are compatible with the customer's car. He can click on one of the ski rack models for more information.
Customers choose the 'car winterization' option under 'Things to Prepare' to get vehicles ready for a long trip. They can set up an appointment using the Web site's service scheduling option. The site also promotes a menu of recommended maintenance items.
Sherman believes this sort of customized Web site eventually will become common as the industry increases its knowledge of Internet marketing.