Renault launches car-buying site

But you won't actually be able to buy cars there

A sign of the times: a year ago, French car manufacturer Renault boldly announced a multi-billion-franc e-commerce investment plan. On Friday, announcing one of the biggest results of that investment so far, the company took a decidedly more cautious tone: "We don't want to be big gamblers," said Francois Hinfray, Renault's executive vice president for sales and marketing. "Realistically, we know this market is just starting out."

Renault's answer to the potential of the Internet, unveiled on Friday, is an e-commerce site that pushes the company's brand, but also incorporates customised Web sites for most of the company's 800-plus dealers in France, the UK and Germany, and links directly to Renault's own databases for the latest pricing, availability and other information.

Renault, which has sunk 152m euros into e-commerce over the last four years, and plans another 45.7m euro investment for 2001, feels the link to dealers is what sets it apart. Dealers have long viewed the Internet as a potential competitor to their business, but Renault says it is on the dealers' side. One result of this is that the site will let you explore the range of Renault automobiles and even arrange finance for your purchase, but doesn't include features for actually buying online.

"By no means do we want to bypass our dealer network," said Hinfray at the site's launch in Paris, France. "Dealers do not consider this as competition, but an opportunity to gain new customers or improve their relationships with existing customers."

The site, along with the 800 or so dealer sub-sites, launched in Britain, France and Germany on Friday, with plans to extend the platform to all countries where Renault has a significant presence.

British car buyers have seen in the Net an opportunity to take advantage of the price differences which see continental cars sold for significantly less than in Britain. In this situation cars in Denmark, which has a VAT rate of 40 percent, are set at a lower basic price, because otherwise the vehicles wouldn't sell at all; British residents can pay the lower price, plus a VAT rate less than half of Denmark's, and end up with a better deal.

Could sites like Renault's ultimately force British car prices down as low as those on the Continent? Renault's Hinfray was optimistic. "We are not very concerned about price convergence," he said. "We would like to do away with these discrepancies, and see the tax levels alleviated."

Renault did not rule out adding transactional capabilities to the site eventually, but said this is unlikely because customers don't seem to want it. "According to surveys by us and other manufacturers, the majority of buyer want to have someone in front of them to close an order," Hinfray said. "Buying a car is a highly emotional decision. It costs a lot of money. People need human interaction and advice."

Renault said essentially all of its dealers had signed up to take part in the e-commerce site, which will in most cases replace their own Web sites, if they have one. Besides a customisable sub-section of the Renault umbrella site, Renault offers dealers Internet training and maintenance, without a fee. To take part dealers must agree to certain customer-service requirements, such as responding to email requests within 24 hours.

Renault also has a few other high-tech tricks up its sleeve. The company now owns Japan's Nissan, which Renault says will give it an edge in introducing high-tech gadgets such as video screens and Internet access into its cars -- such gadgets are much more prevalent in Japan.

The company has already rolled out Renault.net, through which the company's thousands of dealers can keep in contact and place orders, bureau.net, an extranet for Renault's own sales and marketing department.

The company has bought a four percent stake in Covisint, an e-business marketplace started by US auto makers, and says it has used it to conduct four auctions to date.

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