Sept. 04--Owning and driving cars and trucks, of course, is all about mobility.
And buying and selling those cars and trucks also is increasingly about being mobile -- as in using smartphones and tablets.
Aytomic Technology, a small tech firm in Fairlawn with strong ties to Montrose Auto Group, was created more than four years ago to develop mobile app products for private business purposes. Co-founders Shawn Inks and Chris Thompson created and just released what they believe is a winning app, named Proximity Aware, for both the vehicle-buying public and dealerships seeking to attract and retain customers.
The app lets shoppers scan the VIN number of a vehicle on a lot, which in turn calls up all sorts of information on the mobile device screen without the need to have a sales rep present. But it also does much more.
It's already caught the attention of one of the world's largest automakers, Ford Motor Co., whose in-house futurist, Sheryl Connelly, says she loves the ideas and thinking behind the app.
Aytomic is taking aim at the growing number of shoppers who use the Internet, increasingly with their smartphones and tablets, to decide which car or truck to buy. The sophisticated software also gives dealerships and customers the opportunity to continue to interact well beyond a purchase.
"We knew this was the future. We knew this was where everything was going," Thompson said. "The millennial generation coming up is pretty much demanding that people have a mobile app. We said, 'let's put something together and let's put something together that is best in the industry.'?"
Aytomic shares office space at Montrose Ford, where Inks and Thompson birthed the app idea one day while out in the dealership parking lot.
"We're sitting there and we're talking and we're playing on our mobile phones," Thompson said. "And we said, 'wait a minute,' almost like a light bulb went on."
Their initial research noted that Montrose Auto Group and many other dealers in Northeast Ohio did not have their own mobile apps.
It was Aytomic's ties to Montrose Auto Group -- Thompson is the son of the dealership owner Mike Thompson -- that gave them needed insights into dealership needs. Chris's brother John is the dealership group's internet and recruiting specialist.
"It also becomes a tool for the dealer to truly interact back with their customer," Chris Thompson said.
App takes flight
Work started 18 months ago on Proximity Aware.
"It was just kind of a perfect storm. Here we are, a mobile app development company seeking out the most innovative technologies in the market place," Inks said. "And at our doorstep is this incredible resource in the automotive industry."
Inks said he and Chris were "all in" on developing the app.
"We've put 100 percent of the company resources and time and effort into really honing this project," Inks said. "I've bought cars before. And I'm an app user. ... How could we go and develop an application the average customer could use and really take advantage of, and not just from a car buying experience? It's not just car buying. That's only the front end."
While they call their product Proximity Aware, the name doesn't appear on the app on customers' devices. Instead, customers see the name of a specific dealership, such as Montrose Ford. The app is customized for each dealership.
"You are putting their brand in your pocket," Chris Thompson said. "I'm interacting with that dealership."
Customers who install the app on their devices have the ability to adjust privacy settings, including turning location and messaging settings off, Inks and Thompson said.
"We're an information society. We like information at our fingertips," Inks said. "We always joke around, if we don't know something, it's like, ask Uncle Google. That's what we do. Google knows everything."
Capturing the customer
Studies show that in 2005, the average car buyer visited 4 1/2 dealerships before making a decision, Inks said.
"Today, with the power of the Internet and the power of mobile, they're visiting 1.4 dealerships before making a car buying decision," Inks said. "It creates this overwhelming need to make sure that your dealership has the information available at your customer's fingertips. Because, guess what, they're not shopping around."
John Thompson said shoppers today are highly educated about vehicles before they come into a showroom.
Customers will sit at the Montrose Ford desks and use their smartphones while working a sales deal, he said.
"Why not give them as much information as possible?" he said.
Ford Motor Co.'s Connelly said millennials -- born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s -- in many ways are the chief technology officers of their families. The generation grew up with computers and cell phones, she said.
Connelly's job as Ford's futurist is, in part, to analyze demographics and trends and then make strategic recommendations on types of vehicles to make and technologies to incorporate.
Millennials, also called echo boomers because of their large numbers, largely see cars not as a status symbol but as a lifestyle enabler, she said. Ford has designed its vehicles with technology that appeals to millennials, she said. For instance, she persuaded Ford to target more crossover utility vehicles to millennials.
"We also know millennials also like to collaborate," Connelly said.
Aytomic's Proximity Aware app and its abilities fit right in with millennials, she said.
"I love those ideas," she said.
"The average person looks at their cell phone 150 times a day," Connelly said. "It really is the manner in which they run their life."
While Thompson and Inks are focusing now marketing Proximity Aware to car dealers, they think the application has uses in other industries as well.
Aytomic licenses its software to each dealership and charges the dealership a monthly fee for the app's usage. The Proximity Aware software is designed to integrate into a dealership's existing computer system, Inks and Thompson said. They have some customers in Ohio, including Montrose Auto Group, in Florida and hope to soon land another customer in Atlanta.
Inks and Thompson said they will be delivering regular software improvements for the app and the dealership software. They expect that within a few months an update will let Proximity Aware communicate directly with capable vehicles.
"It is about giving the dealership better tools," Inks said. "It's about relevant content."
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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