If all goes well this fall, when a customer's car repairs are done, Preston Automotive Group will let the person know by sending a cell-phone text message.
It's part of the new car dealership's plan to use cell phones to connect with customers about repairs, new purchase incentives and other matters.
Some car dealers try to e-mail customers, but ``everybody's carrying a cell,'' said David Wilson, president of the dealership group based in Preston.
Mr. Wilson is enthusiastic about the potential of cell phones, in part because in his own life he uses text messages to stay in touch with his wife and four children, or maybe it is the pleased response from the 19-year-old customer whom he messaged about a repair.
``I was communicating with him the way he was used to communicating with his friends,'' Mr. Wilson said.
Either way, Mr. Wilson thinks the phone is the future. ``If you're of driving age, there's a good chance you've got a cell phone,'' he said.
Gold Group of Clark, N.J., headed by marketing consultant Bob Gold, is working with Preston Automotive to launch the system. They've dubbed the service the ``mobile valet.''
For the dealer, Mr. Gold said, ``it allows you to stay in continuous contact.''
Mr. Wilson said he hopes to launch the system in November. Initially, Preston Automotive will use the messages to let people know their car is ready or ask them to authorize a particular repair. Because text messages are unobtrusive, Mr. Wilson's customers should be able to reply from wherever they are-a meeting, a child's ballgame or the airport.
That cuts down on delays, the frustration of playing telephone tag and the missed communications that cause many service problems, he said. The customer's approval of a repair through a message also creates an electronic trail for the dealership.
Once the dealership gets the customer's approval, the next step is to send promotions, but Mr. Wilson recognizes that Preston has to be careful not to become a nuisance. ``We don't want to get into spamming someone's phone,'' he said.
Mr. Gold, who counts cell phone marketing as one of his specialties, is looking further ahead. Suppose a repair bay is empty on short notice, he said. Preston could let customers know about the opportunity and offer a discount for anyone who arrived promptly.
``We're not there yet,'' Mr. Wilson said of the idea.
Mr. Gold also suggested that a customer looking for a particular secondhand car could leave the criteria with Preston and receive a text message if such a vehicle becomes available.
Then there's a Wap site-the technology that allows a cell phone user to access the Internet. A customer with a few minutes to kill could cruise Preston's Web site, checking out new vehicles.
$1,000 a month?
As a dealer opts for more services, the cost rises. The Gold Group incurred the development costs and plans to charge between $200 and about $1,000 a month for the text-messaging service, depending on what the dealership wants.
Mr. Wilson sees the ``valet'' as a low-cost venture, but the price could rise. For a dealership there are internal costs, such as having designated people to send the messages. But, he said, ``I do think it's going to be one of the most cost-efficient and better returns on investment we're going to see.''
That's a strong endorsement for a project that began with a busy customer who spent most of the day in meetings and wondered if he could get a text message about his repairs.
``We went wild,'' Mr. Wilson recalled, especially because Preston managers already were using text messages. The company has one sprawling campus with six stores, and 25 or 30 managers stay in touch using text messages.
Mr. Wilson has watched the cell phone become the communications device of choice for young people. His eldest daughter, 23, got a phone when she was 17; his youngest, 8, got hers last year.
He also has seen how the population at large has gone wireless. A survey from the Wireless Association reported 219 million U.S. users as of June, up 25 million from 2005.
With that kind of acceptance, ``Why don't we use the device they're already carrying around?'' Mr. Wilson said. ``It's just more convenient.''