Lincoln Mercury is tired of losing customers to online shopping services.
To keep Internet shoppers from straying, the division is launching an online service to guide customers through purchases. A Lincoln Mercury personal consultant will provide product information, test drives and price quotes. The company will introduce the service today, Nov. 22, in California. It is under way in the South.
Although the service gives the factory a closer connection to customers, dealers approved of the program because customers must choose a dealership before using the consulting service.
The new program is designed to stem the exodus of Internet shoppers who click off the manufacturer's Web site and move on to independent online buying services such as Autobytel.com, CarsDirect.com and CarPoint.com.
'Sixty-nine percent of (automotive) consumers shopping online visit manufacturer's sites. Then they leave us because they don't get the information or services they are looking for,' said Randy Berlin, Lincoln Mercury Internet programs manager. Instead, electronic shoppers turn to independent automotive sites, he said.
'Online buying services sell product choice. They don't sell the Lincoln or Mercury brand. They are after our customer's loyalty. They are after our customers,' Berlin said. 'It is important to maintain our own customer base.'
Lincoln Mercury is grappling with rapidly changing customer behavior, as Internet shopping becomes common, even for big-ticket automobiles. Lincoln and Mercury dealers helped to create the new electronic service, drafting a program that does not let dealers compete for the same customer.
But automakers still have a long way to go to develop trust and credibility with Internet shoppers, said one of the dealers involved.
'The mission is valid,' said Coleman Hoyt, owner of Acton Lincoln-Mercury in Acton, Mass. 'It has promise. But its ability to roll out nationally will depend on how many people find the site and use it. Manufacturers are finding out that as honest and forthright though they may be, the consumer doesn't trust them.'
Many Internet shoppers look for low prices, searching the Web for the dealer invoice price. Among online auto shoppers, 76 percent visit consumer guide sites and 39 percent stop at independent buying sites, Berlin said.
NO BIDDING WARS
The Lincoln Mercury personal consultant will act as an intermediary between the customer and the dealer. To avoid bidding wars among dealers, customers must designate a dealer before they are connected to the manufacturer's representative. Shoppers are offered a choice of five dealers based on ZIP code. No fee is charged to the customer or the dealer.
Lincoln Mercury's new service is another bid by Ford Motor Co. to get closer to customers. Ford Division is testing a concierge program. Concierges cater to owners of any vehicle make, arranging routine maintenance, test drives and new- and used-vehicle purchases of any brand. Ford dealers object to the service, contending it intrudes on their customer relationship and amounts to brokering by the automaker.
All Lincoln Mercury dealers automatically are part of the Internet program. Dealerships designate an Internet coordinator who acts as the sole contact for the transactions. Dealers also must agree to respond to requests within one business day.
Customers dissatisfied with a price quote may negotiate directly with the dealership or seek alternate bids. 'We won't negotiate price on their behalf,' Berlin said.
In October, 200 Lincoln Mercury dealers in Georgia, Alabama, eastern Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina began testing the program. The California program includes 125 dealers. Two more markets that Lincoln Mercury will not disclose will be added in December, Berlin said.
Lincoln Mercury will decide whether to roll out the service nationally in early 2000, he said.