In the past year, several automakers have added live chat functions to their sites, a high-tech version of an old-school consumer marketing tactic: one-on-one with a real person.
Mazda North America is the latest of these. The Irvine, Calif.-based company, part-owned by Ford, has added to mazdausa.com what it calls the "Mazda Shopping Assistant." Mazda says the program, which includes live chat, is the first such Web-based shop-and-choose feature to provide prospective buyers with price quotes from specific dealers--versus the MSRP (suggested retail price), which for most consumers is a de facto "pre-haggle" price.
In the past year Saturn, Ford's Lincoln brand and Dodge have also launched live-chat programs letting consumers talk anonymously to company reps. Toyota's Scion division also lets consumers configure and price-out vehicles before going into dealerships--although without a chat program.
The Shopping Assistant program, ostensibly the first to take a buyer as close to purchase as one could go without writing a check, employs Mazda Personal Shoppers (Mazda employees) who can answer specific product questions and guide consumers--Virgil like--through the purgatory (and sometimes ninth circle) of car buying.
Mazda says the program lets buyers configure a vehicle, select a dealership, search vehicle inventory, acquire an actual dealer quote, schedule a sales appointment and get information about financing. Once a price is agreed upon, the Personal Shopper arranges an appointment time at the dealership for final paperwork to be signed and the vehicle to be delivered.
Mike Ray, director of customer satisfaction and loyalty at Mazda, says the effort is intended to appeal to younger buyers. The median age of Mazda's consumer is 41, per Ray.
"We looked at it from this perspective: we have the second-youngest customer in the industry; they are very Web-savvy, and Mazda receives about 1.5 million unique visitors to its Web site every month. With that much traffic, with young customers used to online chat, we thought it would be smart to offer them the opportunity to have live chat," he says.
Ray, who says about 70-80% of Mazda car purchasers visit the Mazda site before purchase, adds that the company will run a banner-ad push on automotive sites to promote the program, which went live this week.
Consultancy J.D. Power & Associates ranked Mazda's consumer Web site 12th out of 37 in its second Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation study this year. Number one was Hummer's consumer Web site, via Boston-based Modernista!