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It is generally accepted that when it comes to technological innovation, we in Britain tend to be five years behind the US. According to US research company Forrester there is money to be made from buying and selling through the Internet. But, states Forrester, Europe is already late into the game – and lagging behind America to the tune of billions of dollars of revenue.

However, one company which has been inspired to get online and tap into this potential market is the British publisher Auto Trader, jointly owned by BC Partners and The Guardian Media Group.

Auto Trader readers with access to the Internet can now view all 13 used car titles on one Website

Autotrader Interactive (www.autotrader.co.uk). The site allows visitors to search by any combination of marque, model, price, age and mileage and look up what is available within a 50-mile radius of their front door.

“The success of the site has been quite staggering,” says Auto Trader’s new media database executive Pete Comber.

“We have had 75,000 weekly Website visitors and our last ABC audit recorded 4 million page impressions being downloaded over the month.”

So far it appears that car shoppers in cyberspace have not restricted themselves to their local 50-mile radius. Comber says: “One of our advertisers in Oxfordshire recently sold one of his cars to an American in New York. He was contacted by a man in the States who saw the car on the Net. The American flew over to look at it, bought it, arranged to put the car on a boat and flew back again the same day.”

Autotrader Interactive is currently available free to existing advertisers in the used-car titles which is reportedly proving a huge pull for new business. “We are getting at least ten to 15 enquiries a week,” says Comber, “which is generating a constant flow of new business for us”.

Apart from the advertising revenue, the Website provides a valuable source of data on “wired-up” car buyers.

According to the list manager for Autotrader Interactive Sue Glass, this dataset is one of the first consumer e-mail address listings on the market and opens up the sector on selectable motor data which has previously been dominated by lifestyle companies alone.

This may be proving good news to the surfers, advertisers and anyone interested in snapping up some of the list – but at what cost? Comber puts the figure at 2m. There is also the sweat, toil and testing that goes with any adventurer going boldy forth into unchartered commercial territories where other classified publishers have, as yet, not ventured.

Auto Trader the publication was a concept originally borrowed from the US in 1977. So was the idea for the Website some 20 years later. The publication originally started up as a magazine advertising cars in the Thames Valley area. Over the next two decades the concept expanded across the UK. By the mid-Nineties with a combined readership of 2 mil lion, the publishers started to detect a shift in their readers’ requirements.

“Around 1994, we realised that there was a specific need for niche publications at the top end of the car and bike market,” explains Comber.

“People who were looking for a very specific car or bike were telling us that they really were prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country to get exactly what they wanted.”

To meet this growing need, the publishers launched Top Marques for the car buyers followed by Bike Trader. By 1995 Auto Trader’s research also revealed that people at the top end of the car and bike market were not just prepared to travel, but they were quite prepared to use the Web as an extra tool to seek out the right vehicles. The publishers took the decision the following year to test the Internet for response to car sales.

Much of the development work was done in-house and Auto Trader was quick to tap into the new media facilities of its co-owner The Guardian Media Group and the test site was launched.

“Initially we launched our two titles Top Marques and Bike Trader on the Net as they had the more upmarket AB profiles that fitted in with Internet usage, which at that time tended to be used by the same AB groups in the home,” explains Comber.

The Website design was kept simple to allow the site to be compatible with basic browsers and to save valuable time downloading.

The decision was then made to extend the Web offer to all the Auto Trader publications and the serious investment in time and resources began. The biggest problem proved to be getting the relevant data from all the regional publications and in turn disseminating it for use on the Website.

A national collection point was set up in Devon and a bespoke computer programme had to be written to sift through the string of text submitted from the regional publications. “What took the time and investment was the work that went into improving the data quality before we could do anything with it on the Website,” says Comber. “That involved much testing of the software and dry runs to see if it worked.” It took nine months to finetune the data before the launch in August last year.

Naturally Auto Trader is not looking for an early return on investment but aims to be in the black in the next year or so. The road to profit is however being paved by contributions from the likes of the Alliance & Leicester, BMW, Toyota and Nissan – all of whom have taken banner ads on the Website.

But will this foray into the world of the Internet herald the demise of 13 regional versions of Auto Trader? Comber thinks not: “No, it is simply a case of supplying the appropriate vehicle for the right reader. And even if the Internet does take off for other readership groups, there will still be people out there who want to have and hold the printed version.”

And with the largest issue of Auto Trader at 400 pages and the smaller ones at 200 pages, that news should be comforting for the paper industry – if no one else.

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