Saturn Corp., which calls itself 'a different kind of car company,' is on a different path to deal with Internet-generated leads from potential buyers.
The company has taken control of Web prospects from three online brokers in a pilot program that started quietly six months ago in five cities.
Saturn signed a deal with three Web services - AutoVantage, AutoWeb and Edmund's Online. The three Web sites send consumer leads to Saturn. The factory then directs each prospect to the dealer closest to the customer. Dealers said they pay the factory $28 per lead.
Until now, automakers generally have not become involved in which Web services their dealers use.
Saturn wants to ensure good response time to Web inquiries and to learn more about Internet shopping, said Rick McManama, executive director of customer and retailer operations and strategies for Saturn in Spring Hill, Tenn.
The pilot program is under way in Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapo-lis, Phoenix and Orlando, Fla..
McManama said it's 'just a coincidence' that two of the five markets, Phoenix and Orlando, have dealerships owned or partly owned by Saturn Retail Enterprises of Charlotte, N.C. Saturn Retail Enterprises, owned by the factory, is buying Saturn stores and eventually wants to take them public. Saturn said the two Saturn Retail Enterprises stores aren't getting preferential treatment.
McManama said there is no set time for the test to end. Saturn will evaluate results before deciding whether to take the program national. But Saturn's version of a dealer council - called the franchise operations team - would have to approve the program.
Consultant Sheldon Sandler said the program limits the autonomy of Saturn dealers. 'The manufacturers are trying to control the customer and also the dealers,' said Sandler, CEO of Bel Air Partners LLC in Princeton, N.J., an investment firm specializing in auto retailing.
'Now Saturn wants to be the conduit to distribute the leads and take control of the customer relationship,' he said. 'Now they want to encroach further on what used to be dealer territory.'
McManama said, 'I don't see this as an abuse of control' by Saturn. Rather, he said, the company is trying to understand how best to integrate Internet shopping into its retailing.
Many Saturn buyers are Internet -savvy. Forty-two percent of Saturn's new car buyers used the Web during the shopping process in the first quarter of 1999, according to J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif.
Dick Adams, general manager of Saturn of Orlando South, said the pilot program has provided the dealership with several prospects weekly.