What's a car dealer to do?
First, as an experiment, I tried to actually buy a car online. To do the whole deal, right to the point of delivery, via this computer screen.
I found lots of information. I learned more about the market, and I got to the right dealer. But since the car would actually matter to my life, I ended up picking up my old-tech telephone and talking orally (also old-tech) to the dealer. He is a one-price dealer. I dealt with a fine young man, and I got a fair deal. I love the car.
Then I got bombarded with articles from computer magazines about online sales. (Don't you love all the thick new magazines that are based on the premise that everything is going digital? A lot of trees have died to hold articles about the end of print.)
A typical article was titled 'Death of the Salesman.' It argued that online selling was sweeping the industry, and car salesmen were history. It didn't lament their death.
Then I attended a breakfast meeting with the research director at Forrester Research. They're the people who do so much research about the Internet, the World Wide Web and that new, more inclusive term, e-commerce.
He showed the graphs that use about a 45-degree angle to reflect the incredible rise in online participation. Then he projected even steeper curves showing the huge rise in direct selling online in the next five years.
Books, CDs and commodities of all kinds will be bought by the billions. But that's true of the things that are simple. The research director pointed out that complex or variable things present a different challenge.
And there near the bottom of his chart of things to be sold on the Web were cars. By 2004, while a high percentage of some commodities will be sold on the Web and distributed by the lucky logistics companies, guess what percentage of vehicles will actually be 'sold' on the Web? Only 4 percent.
But next ...
I got a note from my friend Gordon Stewart, a great Chevrolet dealer. He said he had become the first dealer in metro Detroit who can sell a car online, from approach to the paperwork. He's a one-price dealer (which greatly simplifies online selling). He completes the deal with delivery of the vehicle to the buyer's home or workplace. If the customer doesn't like the car for any reason, he or she can return it within three days.
Bang, it's Amazon.com, except there's also a brick and mortar store for the majority who still like to buy that way. So maybe he's Barnes & Noble.
So what's a person to think? Only that things are moving fast, and that only the fast will survive.
Nobody knows how online car sales and marketing will play out. But in some form, it will grow dramatically. Whether factories, brokers or great individual dealers will be the Web winners, I am convinced that connectivity and interactivity are the wave of the future.
In any event, almost every business will need to connect its business systems to the data about its customers if not directly to the customer.
In a couple of weeks, a lot of car dealers are going to get a look at how information technology is challenging old ways and offering new technologies. The Automotive News Retail Technology Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., brings together many of the individuals and companies that are changing the way everyone is doing business.
It's a chance to hear from experts inside and outside the auto industry, from dealers to software integrators. And it's a chance to talk to the companies that are creating new ways of tying a business to the whole world.
It won't be the definitive answer. That will never happen; things change too fast. But the train has left the station. With information, you can still climb on and even ride in front. I look forward to it.
Peter Brown can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]