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AGILE DEALERS SELLING AUTOS ONLINE

By Published on .

Cory Van Arsdale, a corporate attorney with computer giant Microsoft Corp., didn't want the hassle of going to a car dealership to buy his wife a new Volvo 850. So he used his computer.

By accessing the Internet, Mr. Van Arsdale was able to buy a car without leaving his office. He used an online service known as DealerNet, founded by Marty Rood, president of Rood Nissan/Volvo in Lynnwood, Wash.

By logging on to DealerNet, Mr. Van Arsdale got information on the 850 copied into his own computer. Then he e-mailed the dealership and asked for a car to be brought to Microsoft's corporate offices in Redmond, Wash., for him to test drive.

Satisfied with the car, he negotiated the selling price by e-mail with the dealership. Once the final price was agreed upon, he drove to the dealership to sign the papers and pick up his new car.

"I didn't pay rock-bottom for the car, but it was worth it because it was relatively painless and I got the car I wanted. I can't point to any other car purchase that's been satisfying," he says.

DealerNet, developed by Microsoft and software developer Spry, is the frustrated car shopper's dream, Mr. Rood says. The shopper doesn't have to drive all over town or deal with pushy salesmen.

All the shopper needs to do is log onto the Internet and punch a few keys, and he'll have all the information in seconds.

If he wants to haggle over price, he won't cool his heels sitting in a partitioned cubicle. He can send an offer over e-mail, and go back to his life until the salesman e-mails a counteroffer.

"There's no more, `You said I could have it for this much' and then the salesman denying it. Every conversation is right there in e-mail. It makes the honesty indicator go way up. It makes for a better image for the industry," Mr. Rood says.

And with new data-encryption technology, which scrambles messages so they can't be read by hackers, the sales transaction can be completed over DealerNet as well, by check or charge. An electronic check can be deposited right into the dealership's bank.

After the purchase, if something goes wrong with the car, the owner can order replacement parts through DealerNet, or find out how quickly the dealer can take care of the problem and for what cost.

"It's one button people can push to go into the entire world of cars," Mr. Rood says. "It's a silent relationship-builder before the need to buy a car arises. Plus, if you're on the Internet, you have instant legitimacy."

Mr. Rood is trying to get as many car dealers as possible to sign onto DealerNet. He says that if every dealer went independent and had his own Internet server, all the dealers would get lost in the shuffle-because Internet is so huge.

The DealerNet icon provides the advantages of size and listings already established on all the major information servers. In fact, during the first week in February, DealerNet was accessed, or "hit," nearly 160,000 times by users seeking data.

"Soon, we'll be talking about 3 million hits a month on DealerNet. Try getting that from a billboard or a radio spot," Mr. Rood says.

Already DealerNet has signed up about 250 dealers to the service, including 190 Northern California Oldsmobile dealers. Mr. Rood also is talking with several automakers about having them put their entire dealer bodies on DealerNet.

For a $14,000 one-time cost, dealers get a custom-written DealerNet profile that lists them under the DealerNet icon.

If an Internet crawler wants to know what BMW dealers are in his area, for example, the system will show any nearby dealer who's part of DealerNet. Then, the potential customer can directly e-mail that specific dealership via DealerNet.

DealerNet already has every manufacturer's brochures and prices outlined in painstaking detail; it's updated frequently by Mr. Rood's staff of 50.

Says Fielding Snow, Internet salesman for Phil Smart Mercedes-Benz in Seattle: "People really don't like to go to a dealership just to get information. Even at a high-line store they feel they're going to get jumped on to buy that day."

In its first 90 days on DealerNet, Smart Mercedes-Benz already has sold four cars on the link, and gets about 15 to 20 serious queries a month.

Mr. Rood says all-hype, hard-sell dealerships have no place on the Internet because it's self-policed by the users who dwell there.

"All the information is right there. You won't see anything like, `Buy a car from me now!' on the Internet, because [the dealer] will get flamed by everyone who sees it," Mr. Rood says.

Mr. Rood acknowledges DealerNet won't take the place of the current car-buying process, but claims it will change that process considerably.

"Are you going to buy a car solely based on DealerNet? For most people, probably not," Mr. Rood says. "But with DealerNet, you've already developed a relationship before the customer even comes into the store."

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