Business

Plymouth Rock tries to sell policies online, keep agents happy

“The market is evolving, and we want to evolve with it,” said Chris Olie, president of Plymouth Rock.
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/File 2014
“The market is evolving, and we want to evolve with it,” said Chris Olie, president of Plymouth Rock.

The growing question over how to sell car insurance pits agents against the Internet. Plymouth Rock Assurance is trying to straddle both sides of the debate.

The Boston insurance company has launched a tool, called Prime, that will allow Massachusetts consumers to buy and manage car insurance online, but also be in touch with agents. It is the latest sales twist in an industry that’s trying to adapt to a changing marketplace, one in which agents remain a dominant force but options for the tech-savvy are making inroads.

“The market is evolving, and we want to evolve with it,” said Chris Olie, president of Plymouth Rock. “We’re not forcing consumers to make a false choice.”

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The 1,600 independent insurance agencies in Massachusetts still sell most residents their car coverage. The agents control about two-thirds of the market, but their share has eroded by roughly 10 percentage points, and more than 200 agencies have closed since 2007, before Massachusetts deregulated the insurance industry.

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Since then, companies such as Geico Insurance and Progressive Corp., which sell primarily online, have entered the state’s market. Traditionally agent-reliant companies, such as Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance, are now selling online and over the phone, as well.

Web-based insurance comparison sites, such as CoverHound.com, a San Francisco start-up, have also taken aim at the roles performed by insurance agents, such as linking consumers to insurance companies. Even Google Inc. got into the insurance business earlier this year, launching a shopping website called Google Compare and acquiring licenses to sell coverage across the country, including in Massachusetts.

That’s left independent agents feeling vulnerable and willing to test Plymouth Rock’s online tool, even though some are concerned the insurer will eventually cut out the agents entirely.

“If the independent agents don’t play in that game, we could be left on the sidelines,” said Ray Gallant, president of Gallant Insurance Agency Inc. in Acton, who sells policies for Plymouth Rock and about 10 other insurers.

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“I would prefer all companies use independent agents. I also understand that they’re trying to make the whole thing work. It’s a strange market, it’s changing shape.”

Plymouth Rock officials say they have no plans to abandon agents and are trying to help them compete with better technology. For example, the insurer provides e-mail alerts to let agents know a customer is shopping online but has immediate questions for an expert.

Plymouth Rock has been selling insurance directly to consumers for three years. But those sales are a small fraction of its business, and the company hasn’t heavily advertised the service in the past.

Once a consumer buys online with Prime, Plymouth Rock sends the policy and the buyer’s information to an independent agent who can recommend potential changes in deductibles or suggest a homeowner’s policy, too, Olie said.

Even if consumers don’t complete the online purchase, their information is sent to an agent for follow-up.

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Consumers like to search online, but many also want to talk to a professional, Olie said.

According to a survey by the Internet analytics company comScore Inc., nearly 60 percent of consumers nationwide bought their auto insurance policies through an agent in 2014, at an office or over the phone. About 20 percent bought policies online, but the number of those interested in purchasing on the Internet has been steadily increasing, from 32 percent in 2011 to 37 percent last year, the survey found.

Plymouth Rock’s move makes sense, considering the increased competition, said Rob McIsaac, a senior vice president at Novarica Inc., a Boston technology consulting firm for the insurance industry.

“This is an interesting strategy,” McIsaac said. “You get to roll in both worlds. This may be a selling feature to consumers, but it may be a more important selling feature for independent agents.”

Some insurers may want to keep their independent agents happy because the more lucrative and complex policies, such as homeowners coverage, are still driven by conversations between agents and consumers, McIsaac said.

Patrick Diggins, a principal with SG&D Insurance Agencies, which has seven offices in Worcester and Eastern Massachusetts, tested Prime for Plymouth Rock before its launch. He said it offers agents a way to compete and keep their commissions on policies, even if they are sold online.

Agents earn an average of 10 to 15 percent commissions on auto and homeowners premiums nationwide.

“The biggest thing is that [the policy] ends up in the agent’s hands,” Diggins said. “They’re assigning an agent to every transaction.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.