The days of viewing Internet buying services as simple lead generators soon may be over.
Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp., in a new joint venture, say they are about to transform the CarPoint Web site into a tool that will let the public custom order and track delivery of new cars and trucks.
'It's a new way of doing business,' Ford CEO Jac Nasser said. 'This is going to reinvent the way the automotive business works.'
Ford and Microsoft said the new CarPoint won't cut dealers out of sales transactions. Dealers will continue to set pricing for new-vehicle sales and handle delivery and service, the companies said.
'It's a very dealer-friendly approach,' said Steve Ballmer, president of Microsoft.
While Internet buying services generally offer research and dealer referrals for shoppers - and some claim to do firm pricing and online closing of the sale - the Ford-Microsoft venture goes further. If all works according to plan, CarPoint will allow Ford to move closer to a true build-to-order system.
'We will reshape the system to meet consu-mer demand,' vowed Robert Rewey, Ford's group vice president of marketing, sales and service.
Ford plans to use the latest market data gathered from the Web to organize its design, production and distribution system to give shoppers more of what they want. That fresh data, until now available only in a sketchy way, will be made available even to independent parts makers far down the supply chain.
Sometime in the first quarter of next year, CarPoint shoppers will be able to check dealer inventory, the progress of vehicles in the truck and train distribution pipeline and current assembly plant schedules up to 10 days.
Customers who order a vehicle from CarPoint will be able to check the status of a delivery the same way overnight parcels can be tracked on the Web. By mid-2001, CarPoint will let buyers configure a vehicle order - within guidelines set by Ford - and send the information into the automaker's sales and production order banks.
The CarPoint shopper will be able to follow the progress of the order easily, Ford said, even if the ordered vehicle is in high demand and delivery might take weeks. Now, tracking custom orders is a hit-or-miss affair that often involves dealers or Ford field sales people working the phones.
Ford said it is taking a 'significant minority' ownership stake in CarPoint but would not disclose how much it invested. Ford and Microsoft said they want CarPoint to be viewed as an open joint venture that welcomes other automakers, even those who might wish to invest in the business. However, Rewey said Ford likely will remain the largest minority partner.