The key to getting dealers interested in a factory Internet venture is letting them call the shots.
All 22 Washington-area Chevrolet dealers have agreed to participate in a joint Internet experiment with online buying service Autobytel.com and General Motors.
The unanimous support is surprising in view of the tense relationship GM has had with its dealers in the last few years. Though GM has strived to make up with its dealers, the company's foray into auto retailing in the late 1990s had made dealers nervous about GM's online ventures. Some feared the company would try to sell vehicles direct to consumers over the Internet.
But Chevrolet dealers in the Washington area seem eager to join an experiment of a locate-to-order system, in which consumers can use the Internet to search dealers' new-vehicle inventory and select the car they want.
'We tend to stay away from lead generators (such as Autobytel.com),' said Steve Noble, CFO of Lustine Chevrolet Inc., in Hyattsville, Md. 'We generate more leads from our own Web site. But I am willing to experiment with anything. I am hoping this will generate some incremental business.'
GM, which is calling its venture AutoCentric, was careful to give dealers control over the sales process. The dealers set the price and decide what vehicles are posted online. The arrangement seems to have paid off.
'I want to call the shots,' said Hal Farrington, general manager of Rosenthal Chevrolet in Arlington, Va. 'GM made the right decision in that regard.'
The 90-day pilot, scheduled to begin May 1, is likely the industry's largest test of the locate-to-order concept. Washington-area shoppers who tap the Autobytel.com site for a price quote on Chevy vehicles will be routed through a system that lets them view the dealers' new-vehicle inventory.
GM chose Chevrolet for the pilot because it is a high-volume line and picked Washington because of the area's heavy Internet use. GM has determined that Washington has one of the highest levels of Internet penetration in the country.