Ford Motor Company expects a new image-based vehicle accessory configurator will help dealers sell after- market accessories to customers at the time of vehicle purchase.

That's important because studies indicate that accessories acquired after the purchase of the vehicle are usually bought somewhere other than a dealership. Such as the accessory store down the street.

So, it's not only a question of how to sell accessories, but when.

Ford and its strategic partner, Macro Systems of Portland, OR, developed the new system. It takes the configurator concept to a new level by providing computer screen images of vehicles and accessories rather than just hard copy that lists available add-ons. The visual configurator is designed to show the car buyer all the accessories that are available for a given vehicle - and exactly what they look like on that vehicle.

Using the Macro system to sell accessories adds another step to the car selling process; after the salesperson and customer have agreed on a vehicle and an acceptable price, the customer is then turned over to an accessory manager, who helps the customer select additional features and options for the vehicle before the customer is turned over to the finance department.

It's a new step in the sales and financing process, says Macro Systems executive vice president Jeff Divine.

He adds, "There's often a short wait before the customer can get in to talk to the finance and insurance manager, and that brief period is the time in which the customer can accessorize the newly purchased vehicle and include the add-ons in the financing rather than have to take out his credit card to pay for after-market accessories after the sale is finalized."

Selling accessories need not be the job of either the sales or finance department.

At Colvin Auto Sales in McMinnville, OR, for example, accessory sales are the domain of Sue Mardock, the dealership's customer relations manager.

She says, "After the sale, I show the customer around the dealership, introduce him or her to the service manager, give the customer a coupon for the first service appointment, then bring that customer back to a computer screen. It has an image of the vehicle just purchased, along with images of available options that we can add to the vehicle before we go into the finance office."

Customer response, says Kathy Merchak, vehicle personalization marketing sales manager for Ford Motor Company, is positive about the Macro system's sales potential, especially among truck and SUV buyers, who are highly prone to personalize their new vehicles by adding accessories.

Some studies indicate that whereas average car buyers spend about $300 on vehicle accessories, the average truck buyers spend three to four times that.

"We're integrating the vehicle sales and accessory sales processes together," says Ms. Merchak. "The Macro System is more than just a pretty piece of software; it's also a new process for the dealer to take advantage of, an outstanding marketing product for making presentations to the customer. It gets the customer excited about his purchase, reconfirms the purchase decision. It's driving up customer satisfaction."

Says Ms. Mardock, "It creates great rapport with the customer. And because the whole process is a very soft sell, the customers love it. I think it's the wave of the future."

The Macro system proposes to add an average of $150 in gross profit per vehicle sold, according to Mr. Divine.

He explains, "In the day of the better informed consumer who has very likely used the Internet to research MSRPs and the value of his trade-in, margins are getting squeezed, resulting in lower gross profits for dealers.

"Often, consumers turn around and spend on accessories what their Internet research has helped them save on the purchase price of the vehicle."

A feature of the Macro System's visual accessory configurator is that the system is designed to show only those accessories that can actually be applied to any given vehicle in the Ford, Lincoln or Mercury lines.

It does not allow the consumer to attempt to specify a Taurus axle ratio on an Explorer, or running boards for a F-150 on a Mustang, errors that some configurators are comically notorious for performing.

"A more generic configurator might try to add accessories that are either inappropriate to that vehicle or unavailable," says Ms. Merchak. "And that can cause the customer to be very unhappy."

Gordon Simpson, parts manager at Bickford Ford in Snohomish, WA (near Seattle), says that since Ford has bought an equity position in Macro Systems, the configurator now displays sharper images and includes OEM part numbers, making it easier for parts and service departments more accurately to select and install options and accessories.

"It's definitely a selling tool," says Mr. Simpson. "The system is designed to entertain the customer as well as inform him. It shows some bells and whistles - images rather than just printing out a list of the available accessories. The opportunity is especially good with truck and SUV buyers. It's not uncommon for a truck buyer to spend $2,000 on accessories."

Bickford Ford was a natural for testing the accessorizing system, says Mr. Simpson, since the dealership's new vehicle sales are 85% trucks.

Mr. Simpson acknowledges that the pursuit of accessory sales can change the way a dealership does business.