With a personal fortune equivalent to the combined wealth of several developing nations, Bill Gates does not need to begin a new career as a used-car salesman. But his Microsoft empire has joined a growing number of companies which have identified the Internet as the ideal medium for motorists. UK subscribers to the Microsoft Network (MSN) who indicate an interest in motoring subjects are directed straight into the Autolocate Web site, where they can request brochures, order new cars at discounted prices and search through 15,000 used cars available from franchised motor dealers throughout the UK.
Once in the site, you simply indicate the type of vehicle or the specific model desired, the price bracket and your home postcode and Autolocate finds all the details of the cars that suit - it even tells you how far you will have to travel. If the car you want is unavailable, you can register your inquiry and receive an e-mail notification as soon as one comes on to the system.
Other Web sites, such as Carsource, Autolink and Motortrak, follow similar patterns, encouraging dealers to advertise used cars on the Internet, with links to their stock-control systems to ensure automatic updates of information about cars for sale. Among the most impressive is Virtual Showroom, which incorporates immediate displays of vehicle finance options and an accurate, personalised valuation for any car offered in part-exchange. This has already attracted the participation of more than 600 dealers, including every outlet in Vauxhall's Network Q-approved used-car network, and taken Virtual Showroom towards the "critical mass" where there are sufficient used cars available for the site to become a realistic way of tracking down the used car of your dreams. And if you are looking for a used car from a private seller, sites run by conventional publishers such as Auto Trader, Exchange & Mart and Auto Hunter are already viable options. Motor manufacturers are keen to focus attention on new cars, and Korean car producer Daewoo has thrown down the gauntlet by announcing plans to sell cars via the Internet later this year. "As cars become viewed more and more as commodities, an ever-increasing number of motorists will make dispassionate, objective purchase decisions," explains Andrew Thompson, Daewoo information services director. "The Internet is ideally suited to that process, and we expect it to be a very significant marketing channel for car sales before the year 2000." Though the structure of conventional dealer networks presents problems for online sales by other manufacturers, most are keen to explore the potential of new media. "The Internet is becoming a fundamental tool in marketing our products and disseminating information to our customers everywhere," says Ford's chairman, Alex Trotman. Ford's presence on the Internet is more widespread than any other manufacturer, with multilingual direct links to car sales networks in more than 50 countries. …