Great products at reasonable prices always have, and always will, own the market. Period!

I did the wrap-up for Keith Crain's technology conference in Washington a few weeks back. The crowd was thick with the usual suspects — manufacturers looking to gauge dealer and political reaction to direct selling schemes, suppliers looking to spot the opportunity/missing ingredient in manufacturers' strategies, and dealers hunting for safe ground.

All three were stumbling over one another at the crossroads of World Wide Web; all thrashing about as if one of them might stake claim in the web and own it to the disadvantage of all competitors and trespassers.

I strolled around wondering when or whether everyone would learn that there is no magic pill in automotive retaildom; there's no cure that will keep blowouts and recalls from scaring off buyers; no potion to overcome the disadvantage of poor residual values, and no www.DirectBuy.com to end the franchise system as we know it — nothing from inner space, outer space or cyberspace to triumph over high prices or shoddy engineering.

It's just a matter of minutes before they all realize that the Internet simply amplifies the basic rules that have driven retail success forever. Great products at reasonable prices always have, and always will, own the market. Period! Thinking otherwise is like believing that you can create profitability by doubling the size of a bad ad or hiring additional bookkeepers.

Today's technologies simply put more information into every decision. They facilitate more intelligent dialogues with customers and enable a more effective plan for inventory. But, people still make all the difference; the technology just delivers data, people draw conclusions and serve up the answers. The question of the day is not about the speed of your processor, the size of your hard drive or the elegance of your software. The driving question is whether you have a vision of how to compete in this new information-rich environment?

Information was once the killer-bait that lured shoppers into the dealer's domain; Information was the dealer's advantage. Today, customers step into the negotiating arena armed to the teeth with facts and figures gathered from the Net. Many salespeople are actually finding that customers have more product intelligence of a competitive and comparative nature than they do. Those salespeople and their dealers are the ones that are most fearful that a direct selling scheme is next; that they have only the law to protect them from being shunned by customers and elbowed aside by aggressive manufacturers.

Are they right? Hell no. Customers want personal service and “people” are the only way to deliver it. Self-service is no service at all and the web without a human support staff is the worst kind of self-service.

The digital information age has nothing to do with clicks over bricks. The tipping point between a clicks “cyber sell” and a bricks “dealer sell” is in the experience. Contrary to our kids' faddish fascinations with surfing, buyers do not prefer typing into the Net over speaking to a caring and competent live salesperson. Buyers hunt and peck into the web to get accurate information, to find a safe place to buy and to avoid being ripped off.

True, price-only dealerships are likely to see their customers take test drives through Hertz and Enterprise, to shop on the Net and to buy direct from manufacturers. But dealerships that are using computers and information technology to keep track of customer habits and preferences own the future. They are the dealerships with databases filled with customer profiles that sales and service folks use to launch intelligent conversations that are both personal and compelling.

It's been some time since being the neighborhood dealer was, in and of itself, a retail weapon. Buyers no longer place their faith in the local dealer, they develop faith in the products that are serviced by intelligent dealers who answer their call by phone, fax, and e-mail. Distance has been overcome with 24/7 access and better service. Nowadays, great service and honest communication beats proximity and a slick showroom every time. In the contest of a phone center that knows each customer versus a chromed showroom with a cappuccino bar, there is no contest.

In a minute, buyers will tap into an all makes and models web site — something like www.AmericasSmartRide.com. After selecting a product and a dealer, a live operator will pop up on the screen. “How can I help you today?” “Hi, my name is Joe Goodguy and I want a Megamotors Brougham 4×4. I see the price today is $459 a month. Can that be two-toned and delivered to my house on Thursday at noon? I think I want the fuel saving engine and the safety package, can you tell me about them?”

Being good salespeople they will explain the upgraded entertainment center with GPS and of course they would tell me that the price is one day only. If I want, they'll send over a demo unit for a test drive.

When I'm ready, they'll fill out my customer profile of how I wanted to receive future communications, what account to tap for my monthly payment and what are my personal interests and concerns.

About once a quarter, they'll touch base with me and more often they'll send me information consistent with my interests and hobbies. My dashboard computer will silently tell them how my motor is doing and that my mileage is within the lease terms and then it will confirm, with me, that everything is A-Ok.

The result? In a cyber minute, I will, again, love my dealer and my vehicle and each will again be worth every dollar I pay for them.


Peter Brandow is a 25-year veteran dealer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is president and CEO of Brandow Companies.