When tire and automotive industry-related Web sites first launched in the late 1990s, many faced a rocky start due to the collapse of the dot-com bubble that began deflating in March 2000.
Appointmentzone.com, NetworkTires.com and Joeauto.com, all early automotive Web site innovators, seemed to have disappeared. Their Web sites no longer exist-at least under these URLs-and company founders could not be reached for comment.
A consumer-driven site, Appointmentzone.com allowed users to make online appointments with tire dealers. NetworkTires.com, a business-to-business site, let dealers buy and sell tires over the Internet, and Joeauto.com, an auto service Web site, let customers schedule service appointments over the Internet, drop their vehicles off at a shop and then watch via a Web cam as their cars were repaired.
Still, a few other early sites are operating-and making claims of growing success.
iCARumba, which launched in June 1999, is one automotive Web site that survived. Originally introduced to help consumers find auto service providers, today the site continues to do that and has added a number of features. Wen Lee, the company's chief technology officer, said there was a time when he was unsure of the Web site's future.
``I think we're out of the water, and we had a steady performance for the last two years,'' he told Tire Business.
The company has had a lot of success pushing online appointments to independent garages but had difficulty doing the same for chain stores because most have their own appointment engines or online marketing groups, he said.
``We're still working on how to overcome that,'' Mr. Lee said. ``We're competing with many, many consulting groups right now.''
Still, he claimed more than 100 million consumers have visited iCARumba's Web site.
``We are at about a 5-percent increase every month for the last two years, so we're pretty good on traffic,'' he said, and most customers are ``loyal,'' visiting the site once or twice a month. Despite that, Mr. Lee said he still hopes to reach a larger audience.
``iCARumba has a very deep and strong industry knowledge, and our industry-leading technology will help us reach a goal of 500 percent growth rate in three years,'' he said.
In recent years, more and more tire dealerships have begun maintaining their own Web sites and offering customers the option of scheduling appointments online, something Mr. Lee said actually has helped iCARumba's business. It allows his company to work with other independent developers by combining their strengths, which in turn serves customers better, he said.
But they are both competitors and friends, Mr. Lee said. ``We're walking a very fine line there.
``Our biggest competitors are those of the independent Web site marketing developers, which provide online appointments and marketing,'' he said. ``We constantly have to explain to our potential customers that we not only provide state-of-the-art Web sites for them, we also have in-depth industry domain knowledge compared to those of generic Web site developers.''
When it launched, iCARumba had 45 employees but now has 12. Mr. Lee said the company hired a lot of information technology specialists to help with the development of the program, but there was no need to retain that many employees after development was completed.
iCARumba offers free Yellow Page services to all listed repair shops, but they are only covered by limited service from the generic iCARumba Web site, he said. Top Shop, an online marketing program offered by iCARumba, is a fee-based program that allows members access to all sections of the site. The newest feature to the program is a job listings section where employers can post potential employee information.
Mr. Lee said iCARumba's selling point to its 20,000 members is that it provides a total package for consumers. In addition to Top Shop, the site offers a reference library, appointment scheduling, automotive expert advice and ``much, much more.''
Strong leadership and a ``swift adjustment'' from the needs of the marketplace has helped iCARumba succeed, Mr. Lee said. ``We're more mature, and we can identify the marketplace better.''
Another early automotive Web site innovator, mechanicnet.com, still provides marketing packages to shops to maintain customer retention. The site, which launched in November 1999, also survived the dot-com crash. ``It was a much tougher sell at the beginning,'' said Nina Ruebner, director of marketing for the company. ``People were very suspicious.''
Ms. Ruebner said that since then, the increasing popularity of the Internet has affected the company in a positive way because people understand the capabilities of the Net and the benefits it offers.
``We're doing really well, and it's a really exciting area to be in right now.''
Ms. Ruebner said she never questioned the success of the company because mechanicnet.com offered a valid product, noting she always ``thought that eventually we'd be able to make things work.''
Starting off with 12 employees when the site launched, it has since grown to 30. The company also moved from Pleasanton, Calif., to a larger location in Fremont, Calif., in 2003.
During the Web site's first year, more than 500 shops signed up for ``Maintenance Messenger,'' a software program used as a tool to remind consumers when their vehicles needed servicing. That program today, now equipped with many new features and a new name, ``Customer Retention Solutions,'' allows shops to send out service reminders, thank-you notes, promotional flyers, customer history reports and surveys. More than 1,000 shops have registered for the program at a cost of $150 a month.
Ms. Ruebner said some shops have dropped out of the program over the years, but the company has a high retention rate.
``Most stay with us because we provide a good service,'' she said. ``We offer a complete solution that provides real value.''