DaimlerChrysler Takes to the Web

After idling for months, DaimlerChrysler AG now appears ready to carve out its Web turf by launching a series of consumer Web sites as early as this week, officials said.

While rivals General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have embarked on aggressive Web strategies over the past year, DaimlerChysler's efforts appeared to stall. But officials said the Stuttgart, Germany-based automaker was laying the groundwork for an extensive upgrade to its U.S. consumer Web sites and expanded Web services to top-notch Five Star dealers.

DaimlerChrysler expects to launch the first Five Star dealer Web site in Portland, Ore., either today or tomorrow, as the company still has last-minute glitches to iron out. Through these Web sites, car shoppers can search a dealer's inventory for vehicles, configure vehicles, get suggested pricing and apply for financing online.

Tom Peyton, senior manager of e-commerce at DaimlerChrysler, said the new Web initiative will save consumers time before they ever step into a dealership because they can check for specific vehicles and learn the manufacturer's suggested retail price via the Web. Although the Web sites won't list the final buy price, Peyton said, they will include messaging boards from which consumers can negotiate prices with dealers.

"Our Web sites take a big step in the direction of solving the pricing problem," said Peyton. "Customers want to see the price, the invoice price and the price to buy for today, and the second thing they want is inventory."

Of DaimlerChrysler's 4,500 dealers in the U.S., 2,400 are Five Star dealers, which means they have met customer service criteria set by the automaker. For example, Five Star dealers guarantee that they will answer Internet leads and respond to electronic requests for pricing within 24 hours, Peyton said.

"We hope that this will be an additional incentive for [non-Five Star dealers] to change their processes," he added. "At a Five Star dealer, you are more likely to find freshly laundered shirts in the services department."

Analysts said DaimlerChrysler's efforts were of symbolic importance but still fail to meet the needs of car buyers.

"If consumers expect to be overwhelmed by a consumer-friendly process that is all online, they are going to be disappointed," said Adam Weiner, an analyst at market research firm Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass.

"Chrysler is starting to push consumers toward its brand and off-line channel of Five Star Chrysler dealers," he continued. "Is it an online substitute for what consumers have been doing? No. They are still using dealers. Instead, it's more a complement for those interested in beginning the shopping process on the Internet."

Hiro Mori, an analyst at Automotive Consulting Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., said DaimlerChrysler's new Web presence is an initial critical first step for the automaker to stay on par with its rivals.

"It looks a bit late compared to GM and Ford," he said. "It's a patchwork and was put together quickly and you're still not getting pricing. Basically, consumers have to go around the dealer to find out the final price."

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