Auto dealers are using an alternative to the Internet to connect with after-hours shoppers.
Five Michigan dealers are using CarTalker CT2000, an electronic device that greets after-hours shoppers with a recorded message about specific vehicles. Customers can leave a recording of their own, such as their name and phone number.
After-hours shoppers represent an untapped potential for dealers. Ninety-one percent of U.S. consumers responding to a Northwood University survey said they visit a dealership after business hours. Thirty percent of those say they are uncomfortable about dealing with a car salesperson.
'There's a market in their own back yard that they have never been able to tap,' said Darrell Jackson, director of the automotive division at DirectCast Network LLC of Midland, Mich., which markets the device.
Dealer finds users
Jerome-Duncan Inc., a Ford dealer in Sterling Heights, Mich., has been using 10 CarTalker units for about a month. Each has been getting three to four inquiries, or hits, a night, said Tony Grimaldi, sales manager at the dealership.
'It's new - that's the reason I went with it,' Grimaldi said. 'Any type of new format of advertising or publicity that you can get is helpful in this business because people have been bombarded forever by the same kind of stuff.'
Each CarTalker is about half the size of a loaf of bread and clips on the outside of a vehicle's window. A typical message would welcome consumers to the dealership and follow with information such as price, options, warranty, incentives and rebates, and a salesperson's phone number or e-mail address. Consumers are given time to leave a message as well.
The idea for CarTalker grew from another DirectCast device, Fueling Talker, which attaches to the handle of fuel hoses at gasoline stations to provide recorded advertising messages. Fueling Talkers are used at stations in the Midwest and Florida.
The brain inside each CarTalker is the ISD4004 ChipCorder from Information Storage Devices Inc., a supplier of semiconductor voice record and playback products in San Jose, Calif. An accompanying retrieval device allows salespeople to count hits and play back messages.
The ISD4004 ChipCorder is a single chip with a record and playback duration of 16 minutes. CarTalker is believed to be the first usage of this chip technology on automobile dealership lots.
CONCEPTURE, a business unit of Dow Chemical Co., provided DirectCast with design, engineering and manufacturing support.
DirectCast, with 25 employees, was incorporated in 1995 as Advanced Information Systems LLC. It had revenue of about $1 million in 1999.
Moving out of Michigan
DirectCast has been marketing CarTalker in Michigan for more than three months and plans to move next to Florida in January and Texas in the spring.
Dealers using CarTalker have short-term leases while the company develops a pricing model, Jackson said. Leasing includes technology, weekly activity reports, marketing consultation, service and signs. Price: About $900 per month for 20 units, though DirectCast has not completed its lease pricing or length of lease.
'It is a big plus when a customer can push a button and hear the price of leasing our Explorer for a month,' Grimaldi said.
'I and other managers have stopped in at the dealership during the weekend to retrieve some paperwork or something and see that the lot is covered with people. A lot of people shop after hours so they're not bothered by a sales person. So I'm thinking that this is going to work.'