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Attracting and Keeping Customers

There’s nothing so forlorn as an unvisited Web site. Companies that want to attract people to their online storefront use a variety of channels, both on and off the Internet, to attract potential customers. One approach is to send marketing offers to customers through electronic mail. Such efforts need not be the kind of unsolicited junk mail, or “spam,” that so enrages many recipients. Many Web sites ask visitors to register, a process that offers the option of signing up for e-mail from the company announcing product news.

One technique that universally attracts customers to a Web site is visualizations of products. When engineers search the AMP Connect Web catalog, for example, they can navigate among 70,000 choices by part name or number, or by using a menu of product pictures. Once customers have found products meeting their specifications, they can view detailed line drawings, and in some cases, download three-dimensional renderings. At Toyota’s Web site, customers can not only read text screens with detailed product specifications and dealer locations but can see what a variety of colors look like on a car model, view new automobiles from different vantage points through photographic “walkarounds,” and look at interiors through a special “photobubble” view like that provided by a fisheye lens.

Granted, such attempts to visualize cars are primitive compared with what consumers see when visiting an automobile dealership. And shoppers often have to go through an involved process of downloading free software to use such effects. But car buying on the Web has proven surprisingly popular, especially in the form of online brokering services that gather product information and handle transactions. The Auto-By-Tel site, for example provides access to financing and insurance information as well as an electronic form for requesting no-haggle, no-obligation price quotes on specific car models. Since starting up in 1995, the company has processed 325,000 requests for quotes from a network of 1,500 accredited dealerships. One participating dealer-Atamian HondaVolkswagen of Tewksbury, Mass.- credits Auto-By-Tel for initiating as many as 25 percent of its sales.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the 12-dealership Tasha Automotive Group has sold several hundred cars through another Web-based buying service, Autoreach, according to Jon Fisher, director of operations. Although those represent less than 5 percent of total sales, Fisher expects more than 20 percent of his company’s sales to come from the Internet within five years, based on recent growth trends. Fisher is particularly excited about the potential of Web sites to alleviate consumer disgust with the high-pressure sales and marketing tactics common in the automotive business.

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