Vauxhall-bricks.gif” vspace=2 width=120>Vauxhall, General Motors‘ British operation, is predicting a steady growth in internet sales but is not expecting e-commerce to eliminate its large dealer network anytime in the near future, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

Vauxhall’s relationship marketing and new media manager Paul Confrey said that dealers were gradually becoming “centres of fulfilment” because, through internet sales, the customer and Vauxhall were taking over more of the sales process.

“However, in the short term, only a very small number of buyers want a ‘shrink-wrapped’ deal, most still want a ‘touchy-feely’ one,” added Confrey, a young executive who describes himself as a Vauxhall ‘lifer’ and was previously brand manager for the Opel-designed Astra compact car range and the Zafira minivan.

There is a steady growth in Internet sales – but customers still want to visit the car showroom

He was speaking exclusively to as Vauxhall staged what was believed to be the first UK car maker’s event specifically for automotive websites.

At a country hotel near Vauxhall’s Luton, Bedfordshire, base, journalists were introduced to the company’s media relations and new media staff and offered test drives in current cars and SUVs.

Agreeing that there is a current trend for buyers to research on the ‘net but close the deal in a showroom, Confrey added: “We believe that our current business model reflects that and doesn’t disenfranchise our dealers.”

there is a current trend for buyers to research on the ‘net but close the deal in a showroom

Confrey confirmed that current Vauxhall internet sales activity is very much a “bricks and clicks” operation and is likely to remain so for at least five years.

“In November 2000 we became the first UK manufacturer to offer all our cars on-line and in February the internet was the single most popular place for customers to buy our cars, bigger than any individual dealer outlet, and we expect to sell around 3,000 ‘on-line’ this year.”

That will represent about three percent of Vauxhall retail sales this year. Fleet buyers cannot purchase on-line.

“Our research shows that 60 per cent of buyers have internet access at home and 70 per cent at work and we estimate that the internet influences 30 to 40 percent of our sales,” Confrey said.

“Some of that is pester-power where, for example, a teenage son does all the research on-line and then persuades a parent to buy.”

Although the customer and Vauxhall do some of the work involved with the sale, the dealer still has a major role to play: he offers a test drive at the customer’s home, verifies the condition and value of the part-exchange (UK-speak for trade-in) and arranges the final transaction and finance.

Dealers also provide essential backup: “Our research shows that people won’t travel very far either to buy used cars or to have their cars serviced,” Confrey said. “It’s essential to have good geographic contact points for those customers.

“But the internet is enabling the customer to take more control of the relationship.”

OnStar.gif” width=157>

It is possible that Vauxhall may link up with GM’s Onstar telematics service

Although the customer and Vauxhall do some of the work involved with the sale, the dealer still has a major role to play

Vauxhall plans to develop its website further this year with what Confrey called “a focus on helping you to run your car”.

This is because, though the site helps customers to buy, presently “there is no real reward for becoming a Vauxhall customer.”

In time, a database will be established that tracks a customer from initial website enquiry through the sale and on to aftersales support, providing such things as service reminders and handling bookings with as little customer input as possible.

However there are a few shortcomings at the moment.

“It’s easy to get the website to do what you want but getting your legacy [existing] computer systems interfacing with it can be a problem,” Confrey said.

An initial web-based aftersales system might require a customer to register himself and enter basic details such as the car’s current mileage before a service reminder system kicked in, he added.

The Vauxhall executives were coy about links between their website and General Motors’ OnStar telematics service, due for a July announcement in the UK.

Confrey would only acknowledge that the issue is being considered, adding that the UK business model for OnStar (“a great source of data”) will be different from that in the U.S.

Vauxhall do not intend to let customers make purchases using WAP

Confrey’s new media brief also requires him to consider other developments such as digital radio and TV, and WAP cellular phones as ways of communicating with customers.

Some technologies overlap, too.

Says Confrey: “There’s still a large mass of customers – our average age is in the ’40s – who won’t touch the internet.

“But with digital TV you can get internet sites on TV and TV is more trusted than the internet.

“Nonetheless, we still plan for using the traditional channels to reach people.”

WAP, at least in its present form, has little future with Confrey, who describes it as “flaky”.

“We have no intention of allowing a customer to buy a car on a WAP phone. We see it more for distress purchase use such as locating the nearest dealer after a breakdown.”

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

Automotive b2b – Strategic threats and opportunities in the automotive supply chain

IMS Corporate Profile – Vauxhall