KICKING THE CYBERTIRES: DEALERNET LINKS CAR BUYERS, SELLERS ONLINE

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Seattle-based Dealer Internet Services Corp. is turning the pastime of tire kicking into an interactive experience.

At the National Automobile Dealers Association's annual convention in Dallas on Feb. 11, Dealer Internet Services rolled out DealerNet, a World Wide Web site (http://www.dealernet.com) featuring auto-related services offered through a network of dealerships.

During a nine-month test with 20 Seattle-area car merchants, DealerNet helped dealers sell 57 cars, said company CEO Martin Rood, who also serves as president of the local car dealership Rood Nissan-Volvo. Mr. Rood said the service receives 600,000 hits (people visiting the site) a month.

Now, DealerNet is pushing to recruit auto dealers from outside the Northwest region. The goal is to have at least one dealership in each of 25 major cities and, eventually, to have some 3,000 to 5,000 dealers online.

Mr. Rood describes the service as a way consumers can avoid many of car shopping's traditional hassles while still doing the research necessary to make a big-ticket purchase.

"Most people don't like dealing with car salesmen," Mr. Rood said. "DealerNet offers a non-intrusive option for consumers looking for automobile information."

One Seattle-area car buyer, he said, found a car, negotiated the price and purchased the car online, all without ever meeting the dealer. The man's wife came to the dealership to pick up the car.

DealerNet operates through a network of "virtual showrooms" representing each dealership enrolled in the system. The showrooms feature a home page, which lists information about the dealer's services and products, such as car models. The service contains color graphics and hypertext links to additional information.

Dealers pay a fee to be a part of the service. DealerNet creates and manages the content, but dealers answer inquiries directly.

During the test, follow-up questions, orders or other transactions were conducted by e-mail directly with the dealer. But coinciding with the national rollout, DealerNet is adding several features to automate car shoppers' information searches.

One new program will allow consumers to call up the manufacturer's suggested retail price for any car viewed at the different dealership sites. Another program will offer price shoppers the ability to search for new and used cars based on criteria such as model and year. Consumers can also generate instant estimates on repairs from the dealerships through an online pricing guide.

Mr. Rood said DealerNet is offering fully encrypted data communications features to protect electronic credit card payments and credit application information. DealerNet will also provide an electronic check writing service in tandem with Telecheck.

Though DealerNet holds itself up as the future of auto sales, some things never change. Dealer Internet Services is promoting its project with a car raffle giveaway.

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