The days of the Arthur Daley car dealer could be numbered with the arrival in the UK later this year of US online car buying service, Autobytel.
Fuelled by the unpleasantness of having to go buy a vehicle from a pushy salesperson, Autobytel gives the customers complete control over what for many is a very expensive and important purchase.
Car sales over the Internet is already big business in the US with Autoweb.com and Autobytel.com, which does over #50 million in car sales each month, both filing for an initial public share offering on US stock markets this month.
The UK venture, though a separate company with the technology licensed from the US firm, is no small start up. It has the backing of Inchcape, a global distribution company with close ties to the car industry.
Autobytel acts as a virtual dealership, allowing consumers to browse and collect detailed product and price information for all makes of new and used cars through the website.
Armed with this information, the customer places a purchase request online that is forwarded to the nearest participating dealership. This returns details of the car that matches the specification within 24 hours. The Autobytel trained salesperson then contacts the customer by phone or email.
?It empowers the consumer,? says Kevin Turnbull, chief executive of Autobytel UK, ?It?s all about openness, customers are bamboozled by the dealers sales technique. It?s all about smoke and mirrors and by taking away the power of the dealer to influence the sale it cuts through the old fashioned image of an Arthur Daley character.?
The company was initially set up in the US for the same reason, where car salesman have an even worse reputation.
?Our research showed that consumers dreaded buying a new or used car,? said Hoshi Printer, chief financial officer of Autobytel.com in California, ?There was no way to compete against the car dealer, they are trained to pressure and have had over 70 years to practice.?
The company has a network of 2,700 dealers in the US and Canada and will launch in April with 300 in the UK - it aims to sign up 1,000 in three years.
According to marketing information firm JD Power, online shopping now accounts for 15 per cent of all new car sales in the US and is set to rise to 50 per cent by 2000.
With UK Internet use growing at full steam and car manufacturers looking to the Web to improve customer service, the Autobytel concept understands the importance of the dealer, but believes its role needs to change to better serve the customer and evolve with the Internet.
?There are eight million new car sales and 2.2 million used car sales every year in the UK. The Net offers a new channel of distribution. It allows the dealer to become a delivery fulfilment agent and not a selling tool in itself,? said Turnbull.
?The Internet is poised to grow significantly in Britain over the next two years. It is a question of when, not if, the Internet becomes an essential, customer driven channel for car sales in the UK,? he said.
Aftersales are also handled to allowing customers to buy insurance or arrange financing from their desktop as well. UK sites such as Autotrader (www.autotrader.co.uk) have already begun to sell insurance and provide dealer lists online, but have yet to kick off the online commerce market.
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