Chevy buyers can shop 22 dealerships online

Parent GM teams with Autobytel.com

April 22, 2001|By Ted Shelsby | By Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

For Chevy buyers, it doesn't get any easier than this.

With a few clicks of a mouse, car buyers will soon be able to use their computers to select the Chevrolet car or truck of their choice, agree on a purchase price and give their business to the dealer they like best.

Beginning May 1, General Motors Corp. will team with Autobytel.com Inc., an online auto referral service, and 22 Chevrolet dealers in suburban Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia to test a new approach to Internet car selling.

Under the experimental arrangement, the dealers' inventory will be consolidated so a potential buyer can have a broad selection. Currently, Autobytel represents only one Chevrolet dealer in a region.

The dealers also will set the price and determine which vehicles on their lots will be available for online selling.

"This is the first time ever that customers in a region, like our area, will be able to log on to Autobytel and get a listing of practically every Chevrolet car and truck in the entire Washington area," said Neil Kopit, director of marketing for Criswell Chevrolet Inc. in Gaithersburg.

"They will be able to select the vehicle they want, select the color, select the options," Kopit said.

"They will know that the vehicle they want really exists."

David E. Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., called the teaming of GM and Autobytel "a marriage of the Old Economy and the New Economy" and said it could revolutionize new-car retailing.

Dealers' fears

The test, Cole said, helps quiet dealers' fears that GM has been seeking to use the Internet to sell directly to the car-buying public.

"Now they are going into this arm in arm," said Cole. "It's like the lamb sleeping with the wolf. They may be sleeping together, but you can bet the lamb is not taking his eyes off the wolf for a second."

Ryndee S. Carney, a spokeswoman for eGM group, an electronic commerce business unit of the nation's largest automaker, said the idea for the online buying plan originated with auto dealers, who retain control.

"Dealers have three options," said Carney. "They can list all of their vehicles online with an Internet price; they can choose not to list certain vehicles; or they can list vehicles without an e-price."

"I like having complete control," said Steven Noble, the chief financial officer of Lustine Chevrolet in Hyattsville.

Internet-wired area

"I like the fact that I can list whatever cars I want to, with a price or without a price." He said auto dealerships are independent businesses and owners like to have full control of their operations.

GM picked the Washington metropolitan area, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, for its online test program because of the area's high Internet penetration.

"It's the most Internet-wired region of the country," said Carney.

Carney noted that most auto dealerships already have their own Web sites. They are helpful, she said, but a GM survey found that car shoppers by 3 to 1 prefer an independent Internet service when searching for a car.

What happens after the 90-day test will depend on how well it goes.

"We will have to see what we have learned," Carney said. "We will analyze results and then talk to dealers to see where they want to go from there."

Carney said that, under the test program, customers doing an online search for a particular vehicle, such as a Chevrolet Tahoe, for example, will be able to see all the Tahoe sport utility vehicles carried by the 22 dealers along with their vehicle identification numbers.

"They can eliminate the models that don't meet their specific needs and pick the one they like. After they pick a specific vehicle, they can also pick a specific dealership, maybe a dealer with which they have done business for a long time, to handle the sale. Even if the dealership does not own the vehicle, the customer will never know. The participating dealers will work out a swap," she said.

While both dealers and GM would welcome more sales, the automaker's primary goal is to gauge consumers' and dealers' response.

"This is not a test to increase sales volume," Carney said.

GM, she added, will be trying to learn how dealers and customers react to a pooling of vehicle inventory in a region, to online pricing and the locate-to-order concept, which links buyers to a vehicle of choice faster than ordering from the factory.

GM picked Chevrolet for the experiment, named AutoCentric, because of its high sales volume.

Although online sales are not new, the industry estimates that they account for just about 1 percent of the approximately 50 million new and used cars and trucks sold in this country each year.

Growth is projected

J. D. Power and Associates, the automotive research company, estimates that online vehicle sales could grow to as much as 10 percent of the total by 2005 as both shoppers and dealers become more comfortable with the system.

Kopit is not expecting to see big sales gains overnight.

"It still remains to be seen if the experiment will increase our sales," the Criswell executive said.

"This is a test," he continued. "We are not going into it with number expectations. We are looking to see if this is a better way to serve our customers. If it is better for our customers, it will be good for us."

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