Customers build cars on the Web

It is often said that information shifts the balance of power and control. When buying a new car, that balance invariably lies in the hands of the dealer, since consumers seldom have the necessary information to go head-to-head with an experienced salesperson.

With the advent of the Internet, consumers can get information more readily, but Ford Canada has upped the ante by giving car buyers the ability to build and price their own vehicles. Figuring out the price difference between a 5-speed standard transmission and a 4-speed automatic is no more than the click of a mouse. Want a sun roof and CD player, add them in.

Once you have configured your car exactly the way you want it, and in the price range you want, you can have your request forwarded to the nearest participating dealership or print it out and bring it in yourself.

The trepidation of having to go into a car dealership with little leverage is greatly reduced, according to

“The automobile, at the end of the day, is still going to be quite an emotional purchase,” said Tom Beggan, the account manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based systems integrator Maritz Canada Inc.

The idea behind this most recent iteration of was to give the potential car (or truck) buyers all the information they need to make an informed purchasing decision.

“[Online] customers want to be able to get to the information easily and if they struggle trying to get the information they will just go somewhere else,” explained Jeff Morton, eConsumer manager with Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd. in Oakville, Ont.

So the ability to create and store a vehicle (each visitor can store up to five automobile configurations in the Ford garage), was just part of the necessary solution. Customers also needed the ability to contrast a Ford vehicle to the competition.

The site offers vehicle comparisons using information from Autodata Solutions Company. The third party automobile data compiler allows potential customers to compare about 70 different vehicle attributes with the competition. You can compare something as basic as engine size and horse power to more esoteric items such as front and rear hip room.

“We wanted to provide that functionality within the Ford site so that they didn’t have to go elsewhere,” Morton said. “Chances are we might keep them if we do that.”

No easy task

Setting up a Web site to give customers the ability to build and price any Ford vehicle and then compare it with the competition was a complex task. Not only did a vehicle created have to be buildable, it also had to be free of design snafus. The system had to recognize that convertibles can not have sunroofs nor should a vehicle have two CD players.

In February of 2001 the decision was made to revamp the site and it was launched on June 15.

Ford opted for the hands-on approach, which on occasion made the situation more complicated.

Ford spent a lot of time in the quality assurance step of the process.

“The developer (Maritz) was a little uncomfortable with us getting involved in the QA (quality assurance) as early as we did…but I think we had a really good collaborative effort,” Morton said.

The company also was determined to get both dealers and customers in on the process. Ford sent 1,500 emails to customers who wanted to be notified about the site development and got feedback from them, something Ford paid specific attention to.

“We are an automobile company, and when customers come to our site they want information about automobiles…so we have tried to design the site so it meets the online customer’s needs,” Morton said.

The net result has been increased site traffic. The site has more than 160,000 user sessions per month for the build and price, which is about double what it was previously, according to Morton. About 68 per cent of the pages viewed are within the build and price section, proving its popularity. Added to this is the fact customers are now spending more time on the site, an attribute any Web site owner can appreciate.

The addition of the garage, where configured vehicles can be stored and revisited and reconfigured at a later time, was by no means a passing thought for Ford, but its popularity caught Morton a little off guard.

“What surprised me has been the number of people that actually use the garage functionality,” he said. We are getting about 4,000 vehicles a month stored in the garage, Morton said.

Easy on the dealer

Though admittedly most of us are a little overwhelmed when we enter a car showroom, for the salesperson the prospect of dealing with nervous customers is not something they necessarily enjoy either. By sitting down with a customer in the showroom and building a vehicle together (if the customer has not already done so), some of the pressure is taken off both participants.

“It does put them at ease because it takes the hard sell out of it,” said Doug Freiday, a salesperson with Doug Hunter Ford in Madoc, Ont. We don’t have to guess what it is they are looking for, they have already determined what it is they want, he said.

To date 150 dealerships are fully integrated with, meaning a build and price request can be sent directly to them. Morton said Ford Canada’s goal is to get all Canadian Ford dealers into the system in the foreseeable future. The site is hosted in the U.S. with all other Ford Web sites.