Carole Sage, a busy professional and single mother of two, recently bought a Windstar minivan from Ford of Canada. She configured it down to the color, priced it and applied for financing online through Ford's Web site.
Then she test-drove it and completed the transaction at the dealership she selected, Day Ford-Lincoln in St. Catherines, Ontario. She also took delivery there, a process that took an hour.
Sage was the first customer to use Ford of Canada's online buying service, one of two online experiments in Canada. Ford and Toyota each are running pilot programs that use the Internet to provide information and eliminate price haggling with dealers. In Ford's case, consumers actually can order vehicles over the Internet. Both companies say they will expand their programs throughout Canada. Neither automaker will say so, but the programs may well be expanded beyond Canadian borders.
Ford claims its program is the first in the world to allow a consumer to build, price and order three high-volume Ford vehicles completely online. The site is www.ford.ca.
Included in the test are Ottawa and Carleton, sometimes called the Silicon Valley of Canada because of the high-tech companies there. Other test cities include Hamilton and Niagara, Ontario, a manufacturing and tourist region. The vehicles available to consumers are the Focus, Taurus and Windstar minivan. All 24 dealers in the two areas are participating.
The consumer logs onto the Ford Web site to choose options for one of the models. As the consumer chooses equipment, the retail price appears along with an e-price, adjusted every 10 days to reflect market conditions. In all cases, a dealer handles the vehicle's delivery. Dealers cannot haggle.
At any time, the consumer can ask to be contacted by a dealer. Most do, to get help with configuring a vehicle and conducting the transaction. 'Research shows only 15 percent of Canadians actually complete any transaction online for a purchase,' said Dean Tesser, director of Ford of Canada's ConsumerConnect.
Ford calls the test program a success but refuses to say how many vehicles have been sold online. Tesser said activity on Ford's BuyerConnection Web site has tripled to about 20,000 visits per week since adding the online buying service May 18. Ford will expand the program to include all vehicles. After that, it eventually will be expanded across Canada, which has 565 Ford dealers. Tesser would not say if it would be exported outside of Canada. 'This is a Canada-only initiative. It may or may not work in other markets,' he said.
TOYOTA USES DEALERS
Toyota's pilot program does not go as far as Ford's. The company does not allow consumers to order a vehicle online directly through the automaker. It does allow them to establish a no-haggle price, compare a model with competing brands, get an idea of what their trade-in vehicle is worth, configure a vehicle and place the order with a dealer.
Code-named the Manitoba Project, it is a joint venture between Toyota Canada Inc. and eight dealers, including seven in Manitoba and one in Ontario. Officially named Access Toyota (www.access.Toyota.ca), the project gives shoppers a personal, password-protected home page. It can be used to research and price up to five virtual Toyotas. The consumer can receive credit approval, make an online deposit and place the order with a dealership. The final steps - the ordering, financing and delivery - take place in a dealership.
Both test programs provide extensive training to prepare the dealerships and their sales forces. 'Because the consumer has an enormous amount of information, the sales consultant becomes more of a product specialist,' Ford's Tesser said. 'Instead of worrying about prices, they can focus more on trying to find the best vehicle for the consumer and demonstrating specific features of the vehicle.'
In addition to training, Toyota has re-identified sales people 'product advisers.' They are paid differently, with less emphasis on the commission, though commissions have not been entirely eliminated.
Toyota also calls its pilot a success. Its Web site activity increased 40 percent in the first month of the test. Toyota plans to roll out Access Toyota across Canada beginning this fall.
You can e-mail free-lance writer Michelle Krebs at [email protected]