For some years, there has been increasing talk and hype about how e-commerce could change the way automakers sell cars, and how consumers buy them. Despite all the hoopla - and sizeable investments by automakers - many companies have a long way to go before they take full advantage of the Web to fulfill the e-commerce promise.
Some of the mistakes being made by automakers:
1. They do not provide sufficient interactivity at their sites.
2. They respond too slowly, if at all.
3. They do not take advantage of the tremendous consumer feedback and market research opportunities the Web provides.
There also are many pitfalls and challenges for automakers in implementing effective e-commerce strategies, especially where dealer relations are concerned.
However, it's only a matter of time before consumers demand more online purchasing opportunities, and automakers will either rise to meet this opportunity or fall behind.
Up first: GMC
The first site I visited was GMC's, gmc.com, and my initial impression was positive. Most of the home page's 'live area' fits easily within the browser window, and the product photos are attractive and dynamic. When the cursor is rolled over the product name, a photo of that vehicle appears.
A majority of consumers visit automotive Web sites to get information about a specific vehicle. So, as a test, I clicked on the Envoy. The site did a good job of providing specifications and showing and describing the vehicle's interior and exterior. The copy highlighted benefits well, without a lot of hype.
On the 'comparisons' link, I chose the Jimmy. This neat feature takes you to Autosite's database of comparable vehicles. The default comparison was with the Ford Explorer, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee was a second choice. Naturally, GMC emphasizes the specific items of comparison that are in its favor, which makes the overall comparison less than objective.
There also is a feature that allowed me to configure my Jimmy step by step. For the most part, it was clear and simple, if a little slow.
A problem came near the end of the session, when I was directed to 'find this vehicle in dealer inventory.' The system froze.
Kim McGill, Pontiac-GMC's interactive manager, says she is aware of the problem, and expects it to be fixed soon. Let's hope so. Most Net-savvy consumers no longer are patient with such glitches.
More options needed
Finally, I checked out the 'contact us' feature, which is critical to a Web site's success. There are two contact options: comments about vehicles and comments about the site. The 'live help' link is not available here. This is not enough, in my opinion. Consumers want a way to get in touch with the automaker on any subject they choose, and they need to be able to do so easily.
The Web has tremendous potential for gathering market data, and this capability has, from what I've seen, been massively underutilized. When I asked McGill how these data were used, she hedged a bit and commented that GMC's Internet audience is only about 30 percent of its overall prospect audience. I got the impression that they didn't take these data too seriously. This is a mistake. A consumer who is proactive enough to make a suggestion should be heard. And 30 percent is a pretty good chunk of an audience.
Another problem with the 'contact us' area was that there were typographical errors in the copy. Major corporations should ensure that the quality of their written language is high - on all their materials and in all media.
2 good promotions
Finally, the site highlighted two interesting cross-promotions, both reinforced with a raffle or sweepstakes. One capitalizes on the GMC Sierra being the official truck of the American Quarter Horse Association, and promotes a raffle of a Sierra that benefits the association. The other is a 'Pro Tour' tie-in to various home and garden events, in partnership with Home Depot. It offers a 'Home Upgrade Sweepstakes.' Both are neat ways to capture market data and refine targeting focus.
On the whole, the GMC site is effective, has good features, and meets the expectations of most Internet-savvy consumers. The promptness of the live help is a plus.
That said, it doesn't offer anything innovative or exciting. But in a medium where the primary goal is to satisfy consumer desire for information, maybe innovation or excitement isn't as important as in, say, a TV commercial, which has to cut through the rest of the media noise.
Anthony Flesch is a free-lance writer and marketing consultant in Sedona, Ariz. He can be reached at [email protected]