General Motors Corp. says its ambitious new "e-GM" effort will steer more customers to dealerships. Ford Motor Co. says its joint Internet venture with Microsoft's Car-Point.com will enhance consumer-dealer relationships.
Both automakers expect the novel programs, when fully operational, will increase customer satisfaction and reduce dealer inventory costs.
And both concur that what they are respectively doing is revolutionary. Their Internet-based initiatives will lead to customers ordering vehicles on line and picking them up at their local dealerships.
Dealer reactions to the plans run the gamut from skepticism to eager anticipation.
"The whole Internet thing just boggles my mind," says Clay Moore of All-American Pontiac-Buick-GMC in Oklahoma City, OK.
Nevertheless, he adds, "I haven't paid too much attention to it."
Mr. Moore fears that if Internet sales become too easy, somehow GM will find a way to eliminate its dealers. On the other hand, if e-GM brings more sales to his store, "it would be wonderful."
Bob Murray, general manager of Town & Country Ford in Madison, TN says Ford's plan "sounds good, as long as they let the dealer do the pricing."
e-GM's goal is to unify more than 100 separate GM web addresses, eliminate redundancy and conduct more of the company's internal and external business communications on line.
"By sometime next year, we'd like to have a rapid order-to-delivery system in place where a customer can order a vehicle on the Internet and in five to 10 days, pick up the vehicle at the dealership," says Mark Hogan, GM's group vice president in charge of e-GM.
To do that, GM must not only create a new customer interface, but install technology and systems at dealerships and manufacturing operations. In addition, component suppliers need to be able to bid for business on line and communicate and react to the needs of the market in real time.
"We're working with Sun Microsystems and Microsoft," says Mr. Hogan, "on not only the customer-facing elements, but the back end; connections with suppliers and making our manufacturing process more 'webified.' And the shipping component has an Internet element.
"We're working on all different kinds of alliances and partnerships," says Mr. Hogan. "We're not ruling out joint ventures or acquisitions."
Mr. Hogan says the e-GM plan should leave dealers encouraged, not skeptical or leery.
"We will deliver more new customers than ever before," states Mr. Hogan. "The normal demographic for people going into a GM dealership is 40-50 years old. The Internet attracts a much younger dem-ographic."
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. are developing an on-line build-to-order system. This system, like GM's, will link consumer order configurations directly with the automotive manufacturers' supply and delivery systems.
The companies say this will allow consumers to order any model of car to their exact specifications on CarPoint, Ford.com or other automotive web site, receive immediate feedback on availability and schedule delivery and service at their local dealership.
"Microsoft and Ford share a vision that buying the exact car you want can be simple, fun and efficient," says Microsoft President Steve Ballmer. "CarPoint is going to change the way cars are bought and sold with technology that brings together manufacturers and dealers to deliver the services and cars consumers want."
Ford President and CEO Jac Nasser says, "The consumer is driving a revolution in automotive retailing and Ford intends to be at the forefront of that revolution."
He adds that Ford shares Microsoft's consumer focus and believes the joint venture will lead to an enhanced car-buying and consumer experience, helping to build a more-positive relationship between consumers and dealers.
Angie Brown, Microsoft CarPoint's director of dealer programs, says the venture with Ford will not change the CarPoint site, nor will Ford dealers or current CarPoint dealers get an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
"We're still an all-make, all-model site," says Ms. Brown. "And there will be no preferential treatment for Ford dealers."
The build-to-order system that Microsoft and Ford are developing will be available on Ford web sites as well as CarPoint. In addition, many other manufacturers eventually will be using a version of what is developed on web sites of their own.
In the Ford-Microsoft model, consumers visiting CarPoint or Ford.com will configure vehicles to their liking. The system will check local Ford dealer inventory for a vehicle that matches the request. If none is found, it will check the list of vehicles in transit. If it's not found there, it will check the dealer's allocation list to see if a vehicle that matches the request is expected at some point.
If all of these checks fail to turn up the vehicle requested by the customer, he or she can place an order.
"Over time, this will help dealers reduce inventory cost and help customers get the vehicle they want," says Ms. Brown.
A pilot is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2000. Ms. Brown is unsure if it will be a regional or national test or what Ford model or models will be included in the trial.