Picks and Pans Main: Bytes

updated 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT


Seven years ago car mogul Pete Ellis lost everything to bankruptcy: his 16 dealerships in California and Arizona; houses in Bel Air, Aspen and Palm Springs; his private prop jet. But he wasn't out of the fast lane for long. Auto-By-Tel (www.autobytel.com), the car-buying Web site he launched in 1995, has become one of the Net's most lucrative successes, helping generate $500 million in sales a month.

The system is simple. Customers research autos on the site, then Ellis relays orders to a dealership close to the client. The 2,700 dealers in his U.S.-and Canada-wide network pay him monthly fees and guarantee no-haggle negotiations and minimal markups over cost. Buyers like the hassle-free bargains, while dealers can cut down on advertising costs and sales commissions. For Ellis it's a vindication of long-held beliefs. "Everyone's known what customers have wanted for years," says Ellis of his straight-shooting system, "but they haven't had a model to do it."

Ellis, 51, had become a household name on the West Coast in the 1980s, advertising on TV to push such then-revolutionary concepts as no-haggle deals. But in the '90s, an economic downturn led Ellis to "crash and burn," he says. "There's no way to express the pain." While wife Susie, now 45, worked as a spa consultant to support the couple, Ellis learned about the Net. Now his Irvine, Calif., company is worth about $200 million. Competitors such as Microsoft's Car-Point have joined the race, but Ellis feels his experience and repudiation of sleazy sales pitches will leave them in the dust. Now, he says, "the Internet is the salesman."


Law & Order, E.R., Ally McBeal, Chicago Hope, The Practice: With all these dramas on TV, couch potatoes might think they know all about doctoring or lawyering. A spin through Emergency Room Intern or D.A. Pursuit of Justice, two CD-ROM games from Alpha Software Corp., will prove otherwise. As an M.D. you examine patients and devise treatments. As a D.A. you prepare evidence, then grill witnesses. Both discs will have users hitting onscreen textbooks to bone up on lingo and concepts and soon feeling ready to become a pro—or play one on TV.

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