RERMAG

Price Sensitive

Posting equipment rates on the Web is equivalent to sticking your home phone number on the bumper of your car, say many rental center operators. Why put it there if you don't want some people to see it?

The introduction of e-commerce to the rental industry continues to spur unconventional concepts of how to conduct business, and one of the hottest is how far a company should go to promote its equipment and services on the Web. E-commerce is widely touted for attracting new customers and serving existing ones. It is praised for getting information to customers quickly and easily, not to mention various internal benefits such as sharing files on specific accounts and keeping in touch electronically with branch locations.

But does servicing the customer also include posting information that is traditionally only shared over the phone or face to face?

This is the dilemma facing a growing number of rental Web users who are confronted with the perils and upside possibilities of baring it all on the Internet. Steve Kohn of Miller's Rentals and Sales of Edison, N.J., is a Web-savvy rental operator who strongly advocates using the Web for all it's worth, including letting customers know upfront what the charge will be. "Rates posted on the Web can be changed. They are not written in stone," says Kohn, who presided over a Web site development seminar at the recent American Rental Association exposition in Anaheim, Calif. "I don't want to hide anything from my customer."

It is hard to argue against trying to serve customers better, but plenty of rental operators with an online presence anticipate nothing but drawbacks and muddied waters if they reveal rates. Equipco Rentals and Sales of Harrisonburg, Va., now part of Evanston, Ill.-based National Equipment Services, established its Web site to "remain customer-service driven going into the new millennium," says Angela MacKinnon, Equipco's safety director and Webmaster.

"It was important to us to continue to position ourselves as a leader in the industry. Being a leader requires fast transfer of information for customers and sister companies alike," says MacKinnon. "Staying on top of tomorrow's technology is an important part of the equation."

Despite its heavy customer-service focus, Equipco does not believe revealing online rates should be part of that philosophy. MacKinnon emphasizes that Equipco needs to maintain flexibility when establishing relationships with its customers. Becoming locked into a specific price structure would clearly limit that flexibility. "The industry demands flexibility for the supplier. We want a relationship with our customers, a two-way transfer of information," she says.

The Equipco site receives several hundred hits a day, and customer requests are funneled directly into staff member e-mail. "We have an average response/acknowledgement time of less than one hour," says MacKinnon.

One of the Web's weaknesses is the inability to target specific markets with one standard Web site. Because industrial renters often have needs that are different from residential contractors, posting information that is both relevant and sales specific can pose unique challenges.

Some sites address that issue by providing point and click icons that will lead users into specific information vaults. Nonetheless, unless security barriers are in place to protect sensitive information such as pricing, determined users can often mine through the entire site and make comparisons between customer groupings.

Alan Wismer, president of George's Tool Rental of Hatfield, Pa., doesn't have a problem with posting equipment rates on his site, stating that service still remains the deciding factor in keeping customers. Wismer has been surprised by the number of visits his Web site has been getting since it was unveiled more than a year ago.

"We get a good response from the homeowner. My initial thoughts were we'd be able to target contractors who are new to the area, but we see that many homeowners are familiar with the Web and know what they are looking for," says Wismer.

Homeowners have increasingly relied on the Internet to bring greater convenience to their lives. Because many don't have time to make phone calls during normal business hours, providing detailed data to them via the Web may often clinch a sale or rental.

The possibility that Web information could actually steer customers away is also a concern for some. If customers misinterpret information or misunderstand the basis for a given rate, the Web does not immediately offer the kind of human reassurance that can often keep a customer from looking elsewhere. Wismer counters that worry by arguing that Web site presentation is just as important as signage in front of a rental center.

"If you present it well, it's like everything else. Signage often tells what's going on in the inside, and Web sites are no different," says Wismer.

Maintaining a low-frills Web presentation appears to be the road most often chosen by rental centers that want to appeal to a familiar customer base, made up largely of contractors. "Easy navigation is more important than sophisticated graphics," says MacKinnon.

Although many centers are reluctant to list pricing for more pricey equipment, it seems easier to justify posting rates on smaller equipment. The Taylor Rental Center of Allentown, Pa., for example, provides a comprehensive rate listing, with power tools, plumbing tools, yard and garden, and contractor equipment, each put in a separate pricing category. It is likely that listing rates for smaller "bread and butter" items will increase as little price variation often exists between rental yards on such items.

Increasingly, rental centers do appear more comfortable listing sale prices for new and used equipment. In such cases, these items carry a price tag that is plainly viewed by Web users.

In general, rental centers with an established Web presence seem satisfied with the increased exposure the new medium provides. Getting a site up and running and then making enhancements appear to be the path of choice for many users. The more established sites offer safety information, personnel profiles and industry links.

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