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Can a new site for car buyers, Speedbilly, make pricing more transparent?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 5, 2012 08:20 AM

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If you're shopping for a laptop, airline ticket, or new house, the Internet will happily serve up a specific price. So why is it that buying a car still tends to involve e-mail exchanges with car salespeople, who often are reluctant to quote an exact price on an actual vehicle until you come in to the dealership?

"They feel that a high-margin sale is much more likely if they can get you there in person," says John Connors, chief executive of Boathouse Media in Waltham. "They do have a price matrix where they know what they'd like to get for each vehicle, but they just don't want to put it on the web."

A new site that Boathouse has developed, Speedbilly, wants to change that, creating a kind of Kayak for new car prices, enabling shoppers to compare the price for the same vehicle with the same options across various dealerships. "When I was buying a Honda Odyssey for my family, I had the experience of no one wanting to give me a specific price in an e-mail until I really pushed them for it," says Connors. "We felt that if we could fix the car-buying experience, that's a pretty big opportunity." (Boathouse is a 45-person marketing agency that works with clients like Merrill Lynch, Thermo Fisher, and Harvard Business School.)

The site's official launch won't happen until later in March, but a beta version is up and running. When it launches, Speedbilly will include inventory from 20 dealers in eastern Massachusetts who sell just four brands: Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai. Many other dealers likely want to wait and see how the site performs.

Connors says that the site doesn't aim to help shoppers research the car that's right for them, or what the market price should be — he's happy to leave that to sites like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book. "We're all about buying, and showing you real cars at real prices," says Connors. "And already, we're seeing dealers offer prices that are $2000
or $3000 less than what Kelley Blue Book says a fair market price is."

Speedbilly users can pay $295 to lock in the price of a specific vehicle. That money goes to Speedbilly, but the dealers also agree to reduce the vehicle's price by the same amount. (So paying the fee doesn't have an impact on the consumer.) As a result of that "lock fee," Connors says, "We're not pushing leads to the dealer. It's a customer who is ready to buy a particular car."

Boathouse built the Speedbilly site internally, and Connors says they'll support its launch with search engine advertising and a traditional ad campaign later this spring.

Speedbilly isn't the first digital project incubated at Boathouse; agency employee Brad Noble also developed PostPost, a search engine for Twitter. Noble is currently trying to raise outside funding for PostPost.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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