General Motors Reaches Out to Young Buyers on the Web

Tons of hype has surrounded the growth of technology companies in recent years, and still the number one company on the Fortune 500 list remains an old-line manufacturer: General Motors.

One of the company’s major battles in recent years (one that it has been losing) has been to convince younger buyers that its cars are equal to or better than the Japanese and European models the under-50 crowd prefers. Of course, the Internet offers the perfect opportunity for a stodgy old car company to reach younger buyers, and GM has made a formidable effort in the new medium.

The problem is one of clarity, or shall we say, lack of clarity, on that old car-buying bugaboo: pricing. GM has an assortment of sites, and trying to figure out which does what in easing the buying process is a challenge in and of itself; clearly a problem in a medium that is supposed to make buying easier.

At the Buick site, you get the standard productware of pictures and special offers (available online and offline). In March, Buick offered web visitors a $500 rebate via email, suggesting (but not guaranteeing them) a lower price than if they bought via an online referral service; that offer is no longer available.

At the Oldsmobile site, you can “build your own” model, select the model and options and receive a replica of the window sticker showing the suggested retail price. What is the real price? That remains the same old mystery it has always been.

Among other factors, there is also a GM site that enables users to rate themselves in terms of their conservatism in taste, impulsiveness in buying, and need for sportiness. Based on the results, GM suggests several auto possibilities (i.e., a Buick Century for the more conservative and a Corvette for the risk-taker).

But GM’s main initiative for younger buyers appears to be its “GMbuypower” site. Seeking the enormously popular sites that enable individuals to purchase cars at highly attractive prices via the Internet, GM tries to imitate the Autobytels and Carpoints of the world.

In addition, GM does much of what those other sites do: Displaying key features, list prices, and putting the user in touch with a nearby dealer. It even goes the extra step of telling the user how many cars of the type selected are available on a dealer’s lot (not usually critical information, since dealers regularly trade back and forth to make needed cars available).

Unfortunately, the site fails to provide the most important data to many car buyers: Underlying pricing information, including the dealer’s cost for the car and add-on features. So the prospective Chevrolet buyer who asks to be contacted by a dealer is in the same boat as if he or she walked blindly into a GM showroom — having to negotiate with a sales person without benefit of the particulars of the dealer’s cost. If one goes to Autobytel or Carpoint to buy a Chevrolet (or any other make car), he or she is contacted by a local dealer who quotes a price just a few hundred dollars over the dealer’s cost, with no haggling involved.

GM’s problem isn’t unusual among large corporations. Even though it has adopted the bells and whistles of the Internet, it is still fundamentally conducting business the old way. It doesn’t appreciate the fact that if you are going to create a cool site, you have to plunge in all the way, not 85 percent of the way.

By failing to provide dealer cost data, it is essentially telling increasingly savvy Internet buyers that they’ll need to go to Autobytel, Carpoint, or some other third-party service for the information they really want, at which point, most will likely decide to do their shopping from the non-GM site. If you’re going to send prospects to another site to do their shopping, you might as well not have a commerce-oriented site.

Okay, maybe it’s expecting too much of a major corporation to post its wholesale prices (even though many other sites already do), but it isn’t expecting too much of the company to try to involve prospects and customers in an ongoing relationship, since that doesn’t require baring your soul. And here, GM comes up especially short.

Even though I’m not a GM customer, I might well become one if I could keep up via email on the company’s progress developing electric cars, planned safety features for new cars, and upcoming computerization features. By visiting one or more of its sites, I’ve demonstrated interest in a relationship, but GM doesn’t take the cue. It never seeks out my email address, choosing instead only here-and-now communication; offering to have a dealer call me or providing me an 800-number for more information.

GM has clearly invested huge sums in its web sites, and there are lots of neat graphics, databases, and Javascript to show for it. But, like its cars, GM seems to come up just a little short for the prospective young buyers it would most like to attract.

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