Ford, Dealers to Offer New E-Price

Ford Motor Co. has unveiled a dot-com initiative with its dealer network to offer vehicle pricing and purchasing online.

The automaker and its dealers hope to curtail the growing popularity of online vehicle brokers, such as Autobytel.com, and keep pace with General Motors Corp., the world's No.1 automaker.

Through a new Web site called FordDirect.com, the automaker and its dealers plan to offer car shoppers an "e-price" on vehicles. The e-price is aimed at eliminating haggling over the final vehicle buy-price and will vary based on vehicle pricing in regional markets. Ford officials estimate that the "e-price" will fall somewhere between the manufacturer's suggested retail price and the invoice price.

Officials at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford said its Ford Division Dealer Council originally broached the dot-com plan. The Ford Division Dealer Council represents 4,200 of Ford's 5,500 dealers, excluding Lincoln-Mercury, Volvo and Jaguar dealers.

"The dealers brought this program to us," said Peter Olsen. "They've still got to canvass all the dealers and line them up to participate.

Ford hasn't set a launch date for the Web site, which will allow car shoppers to configure, price and finance vehicles online. Trilogy Software Inc. in Austin, Texas, will provide the technology infrastructure for the new site.

Ford is following the lead of Motor City rival GM, which launched a joint dot-com venture with its dealers earlier this month. While the details on that still-unnamed company remain sketchy, GM and several dealers named curbing the competitive threat of popular online brokers as a top concern.

Unlike GM's dealer-dot-com initiative, Ford plans to take a minority equity stake of 20% in the new venture. Participating dealers will hold 80% of the new company. Detroit-based GM took a 50% equity stake in its dealer Web company.

Ford has been experimenting with the "e-price" concept for months. Last spring, the automaker launched the BuyerConnection pilot program in Ottawa, which allowed consumers to configure vehicles online and buy from one of the two dozen local dealers participating in the program.

Robert DeSisto, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said initiatives such as these have ushered in new levels of cooperation between the automaker and its dealers, whose relationship has long been marred by conflict.

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