eSurvey: Technology And The Dealership

Since the Internet boom of the late 1990s, retail dealerships have invested substantially in electronic technology to improve efficiency, communications, and customer service. The E-Survey, now in its fifth year, has been closely tracking this trend since the first survey was undertaken in 2001.

The E-Survey, conducted and compiled with the assistance and oversight of Purdue University‘s Dr. Jay Ak­ridge, director for Purdue’s Center for Agribusiness, and independent consultant Dr. Linda Whipker, has provided slightly different perspectives on technology and e-business adoption each year it has been conducted. In this fifth edition, the respondents were more heavily weighted toward the small- to medium-sized independent retailers. And there was a higher percentage of respondents from the West Coast than in previous years.

These factors make it statistically sticky to draw too many year-to-year comparisons, but they do provide some interesting insight into a sample that features a higher proportion of independent retailers.

CropLife® magazine would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of precision technology manufacturer Trimble, which makes the E-Survey possible.

Headline News: Net Speed, Use
The improved availability and functionality of high speed Internet services has continued to impact rural American businesses, and the retail dealership has been no exception. Retailer adoption of higher speed Internet service seemed to continue its steady climb upward, as use of dial-up service dropped by more than 25% as users switched to upgraded options (see chart, “Down With Dial-Up”). Most frequently mentioned among the high speed options were direct service line (DSL) and cable modem, while the other high speed services such as satellite, T1, and tower-generated wireless held steady. 

Respondents in this E-Survey sample reflected nearly identical equipment technology adoption numbers to the 2005 sample, with desktop computer adoption at more than 95% of the retail outlets and use of laptop computers at nearly 60% of the outlets. Wireless networking at the retail outlet appears to be gaining some steam, with slightly more than one-third of the respondents indicating that their businesses have gone wireless. This stood at just over one in four in the 2005 E-Survey.

This year’s survey reflected continued high use of the Internet for business purposes, led by use of e-mail at nearly 95% of respondents. Interestingly, e-mail consistently falls to the very bottom of importance of various tools used to manage relationships with key customers — well below even faxing and traditional mail. While it’s an important business tool, using e-mail to manage key customer relationships is clearly not where most retailers are today.

Where the Internet shines is in information gathering. General news, agriculture news, and manufacturer Web sites topped the list of Internet uses for this sample, while business oriented online purchases such as seed, fertilizer, and crop protection products seemed to remain steady or decline slightly compared to previous years. One noteworthy increase in Internet use was banking online, which nearly one in four respondents said they currently use.

On the communication side, cell phones have become ubiquitous at the retail outlet. Some 94% indicated that at least one cell phone is being used by their outlet, and the sample averaged about 5.5 cell phones per outlet. Use of the combination e-mail/cell phone device made popular by the manufacturer Blackberry appears to have held steady from last year to this year at nearly 16% of retail outlets.

Tracking Data

Year over year, there has not been a significant change in the collection or use of customer data by retail dealerships. When asked about data tracking of key customers (customers accounting for 80% of the business that retailers do), about 73% of respondents indicated that they keep basic “name, address, phone” information stored electronically for more than three-fourths of their key customers. Almost two-thirds of the respondents said they keep the majority of their key customers’ sales records electronically, but fewer than half said they electronically tracked application acres (43%) and only one-third electronically tracked soil test results (30%).

Use of this electronic data for improving sales and customer communication continues to be led by the “fundamentals,” including direct mail (55% of the respondents), data product service planning (49%), supporting the sales force (48%), and customer service follow-up (48%).

Web Woes
Web development at the retail level has hit a virtual standstill in terms of functionality. The results of the E-Survey suggest that the number of retail organizations and outlets maintaining a Web presence has remained virtually the same for the last few years, as has the sorts of information made available. Static information such as company background, technical information, links, and pricing information continue to lead the list of content types featured on retail Web sites, while dynamic features such as online ordering, communities, and bill paying have remained at the bottom of the list, largely unchanged in occurrence. 

For retailers without a Web presence, the most limiting factors in Web development have continued to be management not seeing the value of having a Web site, a lack of expertise, cost, and no customer demand for a Web presence.

Bottom line: Retail dealerships are adopting technology that makes sense for their businesses as demanded by the customer, and will continue to look for ways to harness technology to improve efficiency and customer service.

The E-Survey is a cooperative research project conducted by CropLife magazine and Purdue University with financial support from Trimble. Some 2,000 retail managers were selected using an nth pull of CropLife magazine readers and sent a survey via mail between Aug. 25 and Sept. 15, 2006. The results reflected the answers of 240 usable surveys, a response rate of 12%.

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