First of a two-part series
SEATTLE (January 28, 2000) — iCARumba. Funny name. Kind of rolls right off the tongue.
It has nothing to do with spicy food, mariachi bands or dancing.
Actually, there´s nothing really funny about the rather lofty aspirations of a company by the name of iCARumba Inc. It wants to revolutionize car care.
Say that again slowly: Revolutionize it.
Not a brick-and-mortar operation, per se, the company is "virtual´´ — a site on the ever-expanding Internet at www.iCARumba.com. But the brains behind the operation are hoping to dispel any notion that it´s just another "dot com" company trying to make a quick buck in cyberspace. Rather, they consider it an automotive services company.
As envisioned, they´d like to see iCARumba quickly become a "community" that serves as a link between customers and automotive service shops, and, in turn, between shops and their suppliers. It will do that, the company said, by reshaping and enhancing the relationship and communication between service providers and car owners.
Born last year in Seattle, home to "grunge rock," garage bands and Starbucks, the concept is set to race out of the garage with a nationwide launch over the ´Net on Feb. 1.
To say the company´s efforts are ambitious is probably putting it really mildly. Backed by "multimillions" of venture capital dollars fronted by Arch Ventures Inc. of Seattle, iCARumba´s principals say they plan to blanket the country with a marketing and advertising campaign that will, by the end of this year, make iCARumba a "household word."
As the firm scrambled to swing open its cyberdoors for its maiden voyage, Tire Business interviewed iCARumba CEO Ken Brookings and John Hamminga, a marketing consultant with K2 Consulting Group, which is handling the project´s public relations and advertising.
In assembling a management team to run iCARumba, Mr. Brookings said he hand-picked industry veterans who have spent their entire careers in all aspects of automotive service.
"This isn´t simply a company that has seen an opportunity and hired neophytes who´re hoping to make a dollar," Mr. Hamminga said. "These are seasoned professionals with virtually unlimited contacts within the industry."
The firm said its Web site will allow shops and customers "to do business with much greater convenience and understanding," while providing consumers "with tools and information to better understand and secure their car´s maintenance needs."
Car owners will be able to do a variety of things, including:
* Declare personal service priorities for their vehicles, such as highest-rated service, most convenience or lowest price. iCARumba will then provide news, data, recommendations and tools to achieve that strategy.
* Manage the service history and needs of each of their vehicles.
* View ratings given to shops by other car owners.
* Use a "Value Exchange Center" that allows car owners to negotiate to obtain special services or better pricing by trading off scheduling flexibilities that benefit the service provider.
* Schedule appointments online with their favorite shop or search for and make an appointment with a new one.
* Get a "service information pack" that includes driving directions to a shop, questions to ask a service provider to help achieve service goals, cost justification for repair, and value justification for preventive maintenance services.
* Order parts, accessories, tires, manuals and books.
* Shop nationally for tires or accessories, select a location for installation and make an appointment—all in one online session.
For the service provider, iCARumba gives member shops a personalized mini-Web page where car owners can view a list of services, location, logo and other information, plus a link to a shop´s own Web page.
It also lets those service shops:
* Receive new customers with "ready to do" work orders.
* List several daily, weekly or monthly specials on the iCARumba site.
* Be rewarded for good service or prices through a member community ratings system.
* Use the "Value Exchange Center" to match new business to a shop´s downtimes.
* Access statistics regarding customer satisfaction.
The company said service providers also will be able to shop online for equipment and tools at the "very best purchase prices," see reviews of equipment, services and suppliers, compare products and services, download software for evaluation and obtain product financing.
For suppliers, another facet of the Web site, "buyCARumba.com," will provide them with access to new markets and significantly lowered distribution costs, the company claims, as well as tools and templates that will make it easy for them to set up an online store or a system to generate leads.
To be able to fully utilize iCARumba´s services, member shops obviously need Internet access, though Mr. Hamminga said if they don´t, customer appointments, work orders and other information can be faxed to them.
The iCARumba concept has "staggering potential," he said.
Mr. Brookings said, "it´s a good time to access capital that´s never been available before to do this right. It´s a venture capital-driven business, and we´ll spend many millions of dollars to build a consumer base this year through national advertising."
"We see a broken industry," Mr. Hamminga said. "One which is so mammoth in scope, yet has links between customers, shops and their suppliers which, if not completely broken, then are certainly crippled.
"Customer expectations and loyalty are issues shops deal with every day. Yet, we feel the majority of service shops work hard to do a good job, but aren´t rewarded for what they do."
He cited the black eye the industry has received from TV investigative programs showing repair shops ripping off unwary customers.
"There´s an enormous amount of undone, unscheduled maintenance work driving around right now because customers don´t know where to go to get it done," he continued.
One highlight of iCARumba´s site will offer member shops the ability to connect with customers during non-peak times. "If the consumer is flexible about the time he can take the car in," Mr. Hamminga said, "the shop could offer reduced rates during those times, just to keep the bays full."
Another "value-added" feature — kind of a "reverse auction´´ — will allow consumers wanting an oil change/lube, for example, to enter their zip code and post the job they want done on their car. Shops in the area would be able to bid against each other for the job — based, perhaps, on price and time availability. The customer then points-and-clicks a selected shop and makes an appointment.
On the shop/supplier side of the equation, Mr. Hamminga said, "the dilemma has always been the same: the distribution and sales channel for supplying products to the automotive aftermarket is an awkward and inefficient one.
"There´s really no means for a shop owner to ascertain what the best price is on a product, since the process is usually done in private negotiations."
He said iCARumba eventually will become a type of buying organization, streamlining the methods shops can use to find needed products and services. The result: lower prices and improved margins.
While getting customers and service providers together via iCARumba is important, Mr. Hamminga said another primary concern is educating consumers. In steps, the site will allow them to "drill down as deeply as they want" regarding vehicle repairs.
"Our research found a significant percentage of the public really wants more information about their vehicles — they just don´t know how to find it, and don´t want to read tech manuals."
When a consumer initially logs onto the Web site, they´ll be asked to provide their vehicle type and VIN. Then, through a series of charted questions, they can find out as much as they want about their vehicles — perhaps about an intermittent problem.
That way, when they visit a service shop they´ll be able to describe a condition to a service advisor and, in turn, better understand the shop´s recommendations to correct a problem.
Consumers will be able to access an extensive database iCARumba is building that it claims will be able to provide answers — some relatively generic — to "virtually any" question.
In addition to an "Ask Dr. Carumba" feature — no, there isn´t really a person by that name — the site also will provide consumers with access to a series of "dot.wav" sound files so they can hear a sound then match it to a possible problem their vehicle is experiencing.
"iCARumba will act as an outside, objective third party in the relationship between consumer and shop," Mr. Hamminga said. It will, for example, post a broad range of estimates for parts and labor "to help dispel misconceptions about pricing and repairs."
The company also is preparing a do-it-yourself module that will link customers with specific online shopping sites for parts and accessories. "iCARumba isn´t in the business of selling tires, and doesn´t want to," he said, "but we´ll link customers to someone who does.
"That´s why iCARumba is calling itself an `automotive service community.´ "
Although the site will be self-functioning, Mr. Hamminga said that, from a business management and training standpoint, the company envisions shops using this community to access a special chat room for discussions of problems, for instance, or business successes.
Mr. Brookings said the company also is considering setting up online speaker forums and business management information centers.
Next: Part Two will include a look at iCARumba´s shop rating system, the cost for a shop to enroll, the executive team running the operation and the company´s goals.