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Selling Cars on Internet Has a Slow Start

July 12, 1995

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) _ From a laptop computer in southern Oregon, Bob Yoshida is exploring the brave new world of selling cars around the globe on the Internet. He feels a little like someone trying to get into a rowboat.

``It’s nice to be on the dock. It’s nice to be in the rowboat. But not in between,″ said Yoshida.

Local Internet access came to southern Oregon only at the end of December. In April, Yoshida persuaded the company he works for, Lithia Auto Centers, to put a home page for AutoExpress on the World Wide Web to see if it would click with Net ``surfers″ around the world.

But despite access to millions of people on the Internet around the world, business has not been as hot as the bright red Viper sports car in one of Lithia’s 14 dealerships. Still, there’s enough action to keep Yoshida interested.

He sold a minivan to a serviceman coming home from duty in Germany, and had inquiries from a broker in Switzerland about the Viper. Every day he gets more electronic mail.

``I get probably three or four inquiries a day,″ said Yoshida, who hasn’t given up his day job in commercial accounts. ``Granted, some of these people are junior high school kids who want to know about the Viper I have. Or it might be a guy in the heat of negotiations and he wants to check his price.″

Will AutoExpress become a major part of Lithia’s overall business?

``I don’t think so,″ said Yoshida, who said there has to be some personal contact between customer and salesperson for a deal to be made.

People coming to him seem to be turned on by computers and turned off by high-pressure sales tactics. Mark Liebman, founder of a software company called Vividata in Berkeley, Calif., started e-mailing Yoshida after a bad showroom experience.

``This guy saw me walk in and walked right up to me,″ said Liebman. ``The only way he would answer my question about how to start budgeting for that car was to commit to buy that day.

``It just drove me up the wall,″ Liebman said. ``I went to the Net.″

Brian Crow, western regional sales rep for an educational software company called Quality Computers, Inc., was cruising the Net one day in his office in Eugene when he came upon AutoExpress. He has gone so far as to get his credit approved to buy a new Mazda MX3 from Yoshida, but has not made a commitment.

``It was a convenient mode of finding the best price available,″ Crow said. ``If everybody was doing it or a higher number of people were doing it in areas besides automobiles, my life would be a lot easier. Right now I can order flowers and order underwear over the Net. Why not a car?″

Charles McHenry, a public relations consultant specializing in computer companies who helped get AutoExpress online, sees commercial applications for the Net increasing.

``There was a lot of initial resistance ...″ McHenry said. ``But people are going to do commerce on there.″

A much bigger venture than AutoExpress is DealerNet, the Virtual Showroom, which was set up under Dealer Internet Services Corp., or DISC, by Nissan-Volvo dealer Martin Rood of Lynnwood, Wash.

Since going on line in March 1994, DealerNet has signed up 33 dealers from New Jersey to California offering 400 different car models, business development manager Peter Wilson said.

Where Yoshida is trying to pull in customers from around the world by offering a low price, DealerNet seeks to link a car buyer with a dealer nearby for what ultimately becomes a face-to-face deal.

``As a national awareness or national use of Internet increases, then it will become more and more local,″ Wilson said of computer car buying.

Wilson anticipates as many as 5,000 dealers will join DealerNet in the next year.

A number of car makers already have home pages on the Web, where people can find out about their cars. Some even have links to dealers.

On-line selling gives the buyer more power, Wilson said.

``The dealer is no longer in control of the selling situation. The manufacturer is no longer in control of that. The consumer is the one in control now. Those dealers who figure that out are the ones who will succeed in the future.″

End adv for Sunday, July 16

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