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Internet access to boost fuel company offering

Internet access is set to transform the petrol station in the next five years into a provider of vital information and value-added services, boosted by the growth of in-car web technologies.

Research by market analysts, Datamonitor, reveals that consumers are developing their use of the internet from a source of 'infotainment' to an integral tool through which to perform everyday tasks. In response, fuel retailers are planning a series of internet and WAP-based services, all aimed at attracting a "cash rich, time poor consumers".

With profit margins in fuel sales notoriously slim, forecourt retailers are fast latching onto the idea of using the internet as a way of both enhancing customer service and differentiating their brand. Stand-up internet terminals are already appearing in many forecourt shops, such as the new BP Connect forecourts. Datamonitor believes, however, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The uptake of mobile internet platforms, such as WAP and in-car internet systems are also set to grow dramatically.

Fuel retailers are expected to offer their customers free access to services such as route planners and traffic updates, hoping to attract customers to their forecourts rather than those of their competitors. The potential revenue lost by offering free access to popular services will be recuperated from the additional sales generated by an increased customer flow.

The presence of pump-terminals, where touch-sensitive screens are built into fuel pumps, is also predicted to grow, utilising the dead time while a customer fills his car, allowing them to check on time/location sensitive information.

In-car internet platforms will become a common feature over the next five years, according to research by market analyst Datamonitor with GM, Ford, PSA, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen all in the process of developing in-car access systems.

In addition, MobileAria will be launching a system that allows Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) owners to access internet services on the move, and can be installed on any dashboard.

This platform promises to unlock a lucrative new revenue stream for fuel retailers with strong in-house web content, as the bulk of revenue will come from driver services such as navigation assistance, route planning and traffic information. The majority of future in-car services will be integrated into multi-access portals, suitable for PCs, WAP phones and PDAs. Users will have their own personalised pages that they will use to manipulate and customise the in-car services. The data generated from telematics systems can then be channelled into individual, highly targeted marketing delivered through these personalized pages.

Most refuellings are conducted at stations that customers pass regularly. Therefore, the ability to market particular stations to appropriate customers will be at least as important as the ability to direct passing traffic to unknown stations. Telematics data will enable fuel retailers to inform customers of the range of services and special offers available at their local stations and alert them to further promotions based on their individual profiles.

Mike Phillips, oil analyst at Datamonitor, said: "The internet is now being used to add real value to customer service, expanding the forecourt offering in an innovative and differentiating manner. As mobile internet usage takes off, it will open important new channels for targeted marketing and will present a new source of revenue for companies prepared to take advantage of emerging automotive technologies."

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