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GM Ponders New Web Site As Research Tool

The site might collect information on what shoppers look for in a vehicle and how they shop on the Internet.
General Motors Corp., hoping to attract shoppers who avoid automakers' Web sites when researching cars, is considering launching a site that would downplay its GM affiliation while giving independent information on vehicles.

The site, which could be launched as early as the first quarter of next year, would compare GM vehicles with competitors', says Patrick Morrissey, spokesman for e-GM, the E-business unit that GM recently announced is being folded back into the corporation.

No final decisions have been made, but GM executives are looking at the new site more as a research tool than as a sales tool, Morrissey says. In searching for information, shoppers could be asked to provide personal data, such as the area in which they live, how many children they have, how far they drive to work, and features they like or dislike in a car. While the site wouldn't be focused on selling, it would have value for GM in collecting information on what shoppers look for in a vehicle and how they shop on the Internet.

Car shoppers prefer to visit independent sites, which they believe offer unbiased information about quality, by a 3-to-1 margin, according to research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. That preference is a consideration in building the new site. "I don't think we would want to brand it as GM, but we also wouldn't want to deceive the consumer," Morrissey says. The GM logo would appear on the site, but not prominently.

Automakers have found that luring Internet shoppers, particularly those driving a competitor's vehicle, to their Web sites has been problematic. Ford Motor Co. and GM have both scaled back their Internet plans, with the latter recently deciding to drop plans for a joint venture with dealers to sell cars over the Web.

AutoCentric, unveiled in February, would have cost $50 million to start, with GM putting up half and selling the remainder to its 7,800 dealers. But in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the $184.6 billion Detroit automaker said it was putting the brakes on the project, "due to a determination that the business model is not viable at this time."

Dealers were never asked to contribute money in testing the idea in the Washington, D.C., area through Autobytel Inc.'s site. Shoppers could choose a vehicle through the available inventory of 22 dealers and buy it at an Internet price, which Morrissey acknowledged wasn't less than what the dealer would charge. GM and dealers dropped the project after determining they could get the same benefits without forming a separate entity. "We can do all that without the joint venture," Morrissey says. "The dealers want qualified leads, but neither they nor GM want to invest in creating a legal entity."