Sometimes it seems as if putting information into a dealership com-puter system is like depositing data into a black hole, never to be seen again. But data retrieval is becoming an increasingly exact science.

The average dealership management system collects enormous amounts of data about customers, employees, finances, appointments, vehicles and every single camshaft in the darkest bin of the parts department.

Every detail of every tran-saction that takes place in your dealership is duly noted, recorded and stored in your computer system. The bad news is that unless you and your staff know how to retrieve that information in formats that make sense, all that data collection is meaningless.

Until recently, data retrieval was difficult if not downright mysterious. But as the need to make better use of the information stored in the entrails of the computer has become more compelling, new technology allows computer operators to sort information and share it with broad audiences.

One obvious example of how infor-mation is being used in new ways is the Internet posting of vehicle inventories. The ongoing consolidation of the auto retailing industry has also made the need for data retrieval - called data mining - a pressing issue, as mega-dealerships require collection and aggregation of massive quantities of data.

"For a long time, dealers have been frustrated by their inability to retrieve data they had put into their computer systems," says Matt Parsons, manager of product marketing and planning at EDS. "But in the last few years, some very sophisticated products have come on the market that make it possible for dealers to access and manipulate data. And these tools are not terribly expensive."

The popularity of the Internet is, without doubt, the best thing that ever happened to dealers, not only as a new advertising medium that helps attract more customers, but, even more important, as a tool for keeping customers.

But using the Internet as a customer relations tool depends entirely on the dealership's ability to access and effectively use customer data the store already has collected. This allows e-mail corres-pondence from the dealership to be seen by the customer as relevant and useful, customized to that individual customer and not just a one-size-fits-all electronic form letter.

Effective use of e-mail can make the Internet-informed consumer much more satisfied than in the past - and measurably more receptive and cooperative.

"Essentially, you ask the customer what kinds of information he or she would like to receive," says Peter Wilson, senior director of e-commerce for Reynolds and Reynolds.

He adds, "Once you know what the customer wants to know, it's possible to anticipate the customer's needs. And once you've proven to the customer that your e-mail is relevant and timely, you can get a remarkable level of permission to market the dealership to that customer."

One major step in the expanding customer data collection process is the personal page concept introduced by Microsoft CarPoint. It provides the customer his own page within the CarPoint website. The customer can receive factory-generated vehicle information, recall notices, service reminders, and the like.

Soon, the personal page idea will likely become a link between the customer's computer and the service history records in the dealership's computer. That will provide dealers with even more customer data.

New technology makes such individually tailored customer correspondence possible. It's called middleware. It extracts customer data from the dealership computer system and formats it as an e-mail message notifying the customer that it's time for an oil change or other routine service.

The next step in the evolution of such a service - one that's easy to imagine - would be to notify the customer that someone from the dealership will come get the vehicle, perform the service and return the car to the customer's home or office.

Such interaction as customer-specific service offerings depends on real-time access to data stored in the dealership's main computer system. But sometimes offline access to data - a situation in which information is pulled from the main system into a server and downloaded to a PC - is the means by which data is collected and massaged for a specific purpose.

For instance, multi-site, multi-franchise dealership companies, whose stores may have a variety of computer systems from two or more vendors, need this capability to extract data and aggregate it for such purposes as submitting consolidated financial data to manufacturers, or posting vehicle inventories from several dealerships on the Internet.

"Gathering data from different DMSs is not quite as seamless and elegant as real time applications," says Kevin Distelhorst, president of Columbus, OH-based IntegraLink, a company that specializes in data extraction services.

He adds, "Pulling from different DMSs, we essentially take a snapshot of the data off-line and feed it into a data warehouse, a server from which it is downloaded to a PC to be tweaked, refreshed, updated. It's not inconceivable that we would one day have real time feeds from diverse DMSs. But we're not there yet."

The growth of data mining is driven largely by the need to gather up-to-date information for posting on the Internet. But data mining also is helping dealers provide a new kind of information, point-of-purchase data, to auto manufacturers.

Accurate information on parts sales, for example, rarely has been available to the factories. Dealers historically know exactly what parts were being sold, but factories knew only what parts the dealers were ordering - and possibly stockpiling, if the factory had offered a special price on certain items that were ordered in bulk.

"Summary sales figures are not satisfactory anymore," says Mr. Distelhorst. "Today, factories and large dealer groups need much more detailed information on things like parts sales.

Dealers always have had that information in their computers, but it's never been aggregated upward for the manufacturer to see across its entire dealer base what specific parts are selling. The factories have not had the data needed to match parts production accurately to parts sales."

Dealers who feel that they do not know how to access all the information their computers may contain would do well to ask department managers what, if any, additional information they would like to be able to retrieve from the DMS. Then they should contact their computer vendors to discuss it further.

Reynolds and Reynolds, ADP's Dealer Services and Claims Solutions Groups, and Chicago-based CCC Information Services will develop an electronic parts network to link buyers and sellers in this multi-billion dollar market.

The goal is to create a more efficient marketplace for franchised automotive dealers, collision repair facilities, and other buyers, suppliers and sellers of automotive parts.

The new network, based on open Internet standards, will streamline the parts procurement process for carmakers, the 22,400 franchised retailers, and the 50,000 body shops in the U.S. When released, users will be able to integrate the new network dealership management systems (DMS) and collision repair estimating systems using either the Internet or technologies already in place throughout the parts supply chain.