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Hitmakers Wanted

Hitmakers Wanted

In a battle to win eyeballs and dollars from the rental industry, portals offer everything from free trial periods to online rating systems for buyers and sellers. But are they doing enough to gain the industry's trust?

Rental portals recognized from the onset that the rental industry, particularly the small, independent stores, would not be easily impressed. Bart Black, CEO of Asheville, N.C.-based Masterental.com and a former rental center owner, says this industry requires a certain level of comfort with e-commerce. Knowing this, Masterental focused on letting potential customers "play within their comfort level" by allowing them to place orders on the Masterental site or through the merchant's site.

"We know we have a long way to go," Black says. "We are most excited about things coming down the road."

Kevin Ruchlin, director of business development at IronOx, agrees. Dallas-based IronOx, launched in September, is an online marketplace for buying and selling used heavy equipment, parts and supplies.

"This industry is very slow to react," says Ruchlin, who was in sales at United Rentals and Hertz Equipment Rental Corp. before joining IronOx. "They're still trying to figure out how (e-rentals) will benefit them. Rental guys are used to tangible things. The concept we're selling is not tangible. We just need to be patient."

Boston-based Rentmaker transmits requests for quotes, or RFQs, from contractors to its network of more than 7,000 rental houses, allowing electronic browsing, ordering and processing. "It's a pull-base model. On the contractor side, most say it's a great service because it saves time," says Jerome Meier, Rentmaker CEO and president.

"Among rental stores who are more aggressive about getting new customers, they give us a positive response. I find that if it's a family operation with a son or daughter taking over, they're gung-ho about (e-rentals). But if it's just a father owning or managing it, he might be slower to adapt to technology. Most regional chains, with maybe up to 20 locations, are more aggressive because it's a way for them to get a leg up. The large chains tend to be a corporate thing and take their time (to use the Net)."

While waiting for revenue, specialized portals also are incorporating other services to their pitches, including no- or low-cost professional-looking Web sites, links to contractors and other rental customers, and banner advertising.

Black says Masterental wants to take the mystery out of Web-site design and marketing by helping rental center owners create their own sites. Masterental works like a virtual Yellow Pages, showing potential customers the inventories of rental stores in their area. They choose which one fits their needs and can submit an RFQ.

"We allow the merchant to keep their identity online and advertise their logo on site," Black says. "Since their store is online, the merchant can put Masterental on their counter to show a customer, which saves a lot of time explaining (product information). It also gives merchants a 24/7 store, so customers can browse a store's inventory any time."

In addition, Masterental has a "learn section" with tips on how to use and maintain equipment. "It's one place where consumers can go to find answers about renting equipment," says Steve Dowty, creative director at Masterental. "This also gives us the chance to send educated consumers to our merchants."

IronOx allows its buyers and sellers to rate each other as positive, negative or neutral customers. Ruchlin says this rating system helps customers gain more confidence in online transactions.

Shaun Police, IronOx vice president, adds: "Our real challenge right now is bringing buyers to the marketplace and developing buyer relationships so that the industry can become more comfortable with online transactions."

Rentmaker features a rating system in which renters can rate stores, but Meier says the system rarely is used.

"If you're a rental store, I'd say try it," he says. "Look at it from a broader point of view. Look at the retailers online. Using Rentmaker is the same, really, whether it's renting equipment or buying homes, unless you're totally resistant to change. But those who are resistant to change are not going to be around in the next two to three years."

E-rental advocates wish there were more people in the industry like Dudley Spangler, who is keen on having an online presence. As manager of a Grand Rental Station store in Morrisville, N.C., Spangler asked Masterental to develop the store's Web site.

"This whole e-commerce thing is so new that I don't think anybody, in any industry, really knows what to expect from it," Spangler says. "We want to have an online presence because we think (the Net) is not going away, but as far as expectations, I honestly don't know."

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