TAMPA, Fla. - At the Greater Tampa Bay Auto Auction, every used car is shot - by a digital camera - straight into cyberspace.
As the vehicles arrive, they get a bar code sticker corresponding to the vehicle identification number. The vehicles roll past a high-tech imaging station at about 2 mph. An infrared scanner reads the bar code, which in turn trips a digital camera. The picture and vehicle information are fed into a computer.
Dealers who have successfully bid on a vehicle in the lanes can take a blue invoice, fill in a retail price and offer the vehicle for sale to consumers on a new Web site: autoconnect.com. The listing is free, meaning that for no charge, the dealer could have inquiries from retail customers before the vehicle arrives from the auction.
The $25,000 photo stations will be installed in each of Manheim Auctions' 65 locations by year end. Currently, 23 auctions have the stations, and about two are installed every week.
Manheim and the Dealer Services Group of Automatic Data Processing Inc. in Hoffman Estates, Ill., have poured several million dollars into AutoConnect, the used-car Web site joint venture.
The companies are betting their millions that a global medium, the Internet, can be an effective tool in a local business, selling used cars.
AutoConnect is an Internet classified advertising service that lets dealers list their used cars at no charge. It also lets consumers post their vehicles for sale, just as they would in newspaper ads.
AutoConnect President Chip Perry sees the Web site as an alternative to primarily new-car buying services such as Auto-By-Tel, AutoWeb and Microsoft CarPoint. Those sites are geared to funneling consumers to dealerships via purchase requests for specific vehicles. Auto-By-Tel dealers, for example, must adhere to Auto-By-Tel's no-haggle pricing policy to gain an exclusive territory. AutoConnect lets dealers choose the pricing method.
One obstacle to getting the site running is skepticism among dealers and used-car managers such as Wayne Hammond of Jarrett Bodiford Ford in Plant City, Fla.
'I don't expect anything big,' said Hammond. 'I expect a few deals here and there.
'It looks like they're spending a lot on advertising,' said Hammond, who wonders how they can afford to let him list vehicles for free: 'What's the catch?'
There is none, says Perry. AutoConnect gets its revenues from banner advertising, dealer Web-site development and maintenance fees, and transaction fees from finance and insurance companies.
Employees have been hired at each Manheim auction to educate dealers about the technology. In addition, Manheim auction employees - including cashiers and janitors - are trained so they can answer questions about AutoConnect.
Extremely persistent women wearing AutoConnect T-shirts stand at the auction checkout lines to make sure dealers fill out the blue slips so their cars will be listed on the Internet. They also offer dealers who do not have Web sites help in setting up sites, for a fee.
Not only does Manheim capture vehicles on its auction cameras, but ADP's back-office systems poll dealer inventories for used-car listings, regardless of whether dealers have ADP systems. AutoConnect has about 5,500 dealers signed up and about 250,000 vehicles listed.
AutoConnect is staging a multimillion-dollar Internet advertising campaign through December. Later this year, AutoConnect will test a variety of print, radio and TV ads. Because the Internet is new to many, AutoConnect is still learning how to reach Internet customers.
The name of the Internet game is to get your Web site noticed, and AutoConnect is listed prominently with three Internet search engines: Lycos, Yahoo! and WebCrawler.
In addition, Cox Interactive Media will feature AutoConnect on its 17 'city sites' as well as five other specialty sites. City sites are information and entertainment Web sites established by Cox in cities where its parent, Cox Enterprises, owns traditional media outlets, including newspapers, radio stations, TV stations and cable systems. Manheim is also owned by Atlanta-based Cox.
Perry hopes AutoConnect will drive customers to individual dealer Web sites.
He said: 'Internet users who are surfing the Web to shop for a car will have a hard time not seeing a promotional ad or link to AutoConnect.'