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IN EARLY 2009, several Mazda dealerships throughout the U.S. were eager to boost their presence online in order to grow sales of their accessories in the automotive aftermarket. But there was a hitch.

“A lot of them couldn't afford to hire a Web graphics programmer and take pictures of all of their assets,” said Cheryl Scudday, IT systems manager for Mazda North American Operations.

What's more, automotive dealers operating on the front lines—conditioned to selling car parts person-to-person—were slower than agents in other industries to embrace the Web for transaction-based activities. That, however, is changing thanks to IBM WebSphere Commerce.

The e-commerce program, which Mazda introduced in September 2009, provides a template to help dealers develop a customized website in 15 minutes. Dealers can then reconfigure the content and sales incentives, including product descriptions, coupons, promotions and links to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The software, which also manages customer requests as well as scheduling for auto repairs and servicing via the Web, uses PayPal for payment processing and UPS for order fulfillment.

So far, more than 65 Mazda dealers (out of about 600 agents nationwide) have adopted the program, Scudday said. (She did not have any projections on how many dealers may adopt the software this year.) “Dealers [who are now using the program] are seeing a big boost in traffic,” she said, although she did not provide specific numbers. “Regional [dealerships] are pushing the website.”

The websites feature Mazda's color and corporate branding, but allow individual dealerships to embed their own logos and customize the look and feel of the site. “The way each website is presented, consumers feel like they're talking to the [individual] dealerships themselves,” Scudday said. “We don't want a corporate look and feel. It's for the dealers themselves to correspond with the consumers.”

The software is geared to the post-sale automotive market, which is between 30% and 40% of overall revenue for automotive manufacturers, said Srini Rangaswami, product manager of IBM WebSphere Commerce.

“It is an important revenue stream that manufacturers need to capitalize on,” he said. “What's happening is the loyalty to that brand is going to decrease the longer you own the car and, over time, it doesn't matter whether [the consumer] gets the parts from Mazda or the store down the street.”

The system includes both b-to-b and b-to-c components. WebSphere Commerce helps automotive manufacturers extend their relationships with Mazda; and Mazda automotive dealers, in turn, are given the opportunity to cultivate relationships with existing consumers (who are inundated with choices on where to get parts for their cars). “If you provide an easy way for customer to buy these parts and fix them easily, then there's a financial propensity for dealers to use this tool,” Rangaswami said.

IBM software connects to legacy systems for order-creation and fulfillment in real time via Mazda's distribution center. Dealers are able to access an online catalog of more than 8,000 individual products that is continually updated by Mazda North America.

“The dealer has an incentive and a reason to try to make the best tools available to those who are on the front lines selling for them,” said Rick Segal, CEO of b-to-b ad agency GyroHSR North America.

He added: “Whether the manufacturer or the dealer does that for the salesperson, the best salesperson will do it for themselves today and has an ability to do it in, what [previously] probably would have taken a career to capitalize on, a day gone by.”

Despite the growth of digital sales in the automotive space, the physical aspects of purchasing a car will continue to be part of the overall process. “The test drive is not going to go away; the showrooms are not going to go away,” Segal said. “What you will see are showrooms increasingly tricked out with lots of high-tech, high-touch customer experience gear.”

Indeed, 109 Mazda U.S. dealerships now feature Retail Revolution showrooms, lounge-type areas that offer customers refreshments and provide access to the Web from PC kiosks.

“Our consumer is one of the youngest in the automotive industry and they are very Internet [savvy], so it becomes important that our dealers get on the Web,” Scudday said.

IBM's Rangaswami added that other b-to-b manufacturers are harnessing the Web to get a keener sense of who their end-users are.

“Manufacturers want to leverage the Web to connect with the end consumer because, in this case, if Mazda did not do this it would lose the brand loyalty. And the same thing is happening in other industries,” he said. “You want to maintain the relationship with the end consumer.” •

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