When Web sites were developed that provided consumers with insurance quotes from multiple carriers, it essentially opened a Pandora's box of choice, proving to be particularly useful to individuals who didn't put much stock into brand loyalty.On the other end of the spectrum, online consumers with a propensity for brand consciousness would visit the Web sites of two or three of the top carriers to obtain a quote.

As more consumers become exposed to the Internet, the brand loyalists are in the gun sights of the Internet marketplace sites that smell an opportunity. A faction of these consumers-with a little push-could conceivably migrate to an aggregator site if they're convinced they can receive price, selection and a high level of customer service from these providers, industry observers believe.

That's why experts believe carriers must work diligently to keep customers from fleeing. They won't know what the consumer wants unless they ask. As such, extensive market research will be paramount.

The typical consumer, meanwhile, is not lacking options. "Going forward, consumers will have to balance their desire for choice, which they can obtain at an aggregator site, with the comfort and trust that they get in dealing with a single insurance brand," says Mark Trencher, vice president of insurance research for the Conning Group, an insurance industry research firm based in Hartford, Conn.

"The supermarket concept has a lot to offer. At an aggregator's site it's overwhelming-consumers can get dozens of quotes and it's gratifying to be able to pick from the three to four lowest," he says.

Executives with Internet marketplaces, meanwhile, insist they are not being lulled into a false sense of security. "The consumer has tremendous thirst for selection and choice. The Internet has caused a knowledge explosion on the part of the consumer," notes Robert Bland, president of Quotesmith.com, a Darien, Ill.-based insurance Internet exchange, which provides instant auto, life, health and dental insurance quotes from more than 300 leading insurance companies.

Located at www.quotesmith.com, the Web site receives roughly 325,000 of what the company calls "completed" quotes per month.

When Quotesmith.com was launched in 1996, Bland says the company targeted the "self-directed" insurance shopper, of which he projects there are about 10 million in the United States. These consumers are "seeking the empowerment and selection" options that insurance marketplaces such as Quotesmith.com provide. "If you spend all day at one company's Web site, all you get is one view," Bland declares.

The typical Quotesmith.com visitor is a 42-year-old male earning an average of $70,000 a year, and about 20% of them have a graduate degree. Most log onto the site during the day-usually from their work computer, which is normally equipped with a T1 or digital service line (DSL) Web connection.

"We're designed as an execution-only Web site," says Bland. "We don't offer consultation and we don't make tools, such as digital calculators, available to our customers. We've come to the realization that the typical visitor to our site already knows how much coverage they need before they come on the site."

Cultivating customer relationships

Industry observers stress that while it will be hard for carriers to replicate what aggregator sites can offer in the way of choice, there's still hope for proprietary Web sites to thrive-provided they seize the opportunity.

Carriers that sell a variety of insurance products-perhaps life, health and annuities-can bundle those products to create their own one-stop shopping phenomenon. They can carry this out by cultivating their customer relationship management (CRM) techniques, which measure the lifetime value of a particular customer.

"The clear move I'm seeing is that consumers are moving to insurance Web sites whose architecture is built around life events, such as having a child, buying a new home and investment products for the future," says Ken Porrello, director of insurance market operations for Deloitte Consulting, who's based in Chicago.

"This is where the supermarket strategy becomes a competitive differentiator. They can use a life event perspective to draw consumers into the so-called supermarket."

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