DETROIT - In the auto business, marketers who talked about customer loyalty always referred to car and truck buyers coming back to the same brand.
Now automakers must cope with 'click loyalty.'
That's how Ray Lane, president of Oracle Corp. in Redwood Shores, Calif., describes the new rule of Web shopping.
Consumers, empowered with a Web browser and tons of information, simply will click on one Web site after another until they are satisfied with their choice.
'The only defense against this is to manage the process so well that you can actually predict their behavior,' Lane said. 'That's going to be a huge change for automobile manufacturers.'
It's no surprise that Oracle, the world's No. 2 maker of software after Microsoft Corp., has an answer. In Lane's opinion, automakers should link highly fragmented consumer information from dozens of databases into a single system.
Automakers can assemble this information into profiles that track and predict spending habits.
Long before e-commerce became a buzzword, the auto industry was pioneering the use of direct computer links to handle such things as part shipment notifications. But now it's catch-up time. Lane said auto executives realized only recently that the Internet will create huge changes in the business.
Web retailing has changed forever the consumer side of the business. But the supply side also is being transformed.
Business-to-business trade on the Internet will surge from $43 billion in 1998 to $1.3 trillion in 2003, predicted Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.
ADAPT OR PERISH
Even if that prediction pans out, the $1.3 trillion will represent only 9 percent of all business trade in the United States. But, Forrester warned, companies unprepared for e-commerce will be pushed aside by those that are ready.
Lane said automakers must build a manufacturing system that is more responsive to customer demand.
To help them, Oracle, with $8.8 billion in sales last year, has been developing new tools for Internet purchasing, database management and business operations.
Building cars in a few days to customer orders is a tough assignment for an auto industry that moves many parts by rail. But Lane is confident that information technology will transform the auto business to the build-to-order model.
'We can do all that right now,' he said. 'It will come about.'