Study: Car Dealers Fumbling Web Potential

Auto dealers are not using the Internet to their best advantage when seeking to lure customers to their dealerships, according to a study released Wednesday by research firm J.D. Power and Associates.

A key issue is that car dealers generally do not have a good idea of how they can use Internet-related technology to improve results, according to the study.

The study “clearly illustrates the need for computer software companies to spend less time developing bells and whistles for their products and more time educating dealers how to use their systems,” J.D. Power partner Chris Denove said.

“Our original goal was to conduct detailed interviews with Internet managers about how well their lead management provider performed individual functions, such as appointment calendaring and e-mail auto responses,” Denove said. “Unfortunately, it became apparent early on that many Internet managers aren’t even familiar with most of the tools offered by their providers.”

Added Denove: “Most managers are barely aware that their lead management system is anything beyond a big inbox for their e-mails.”

At the same time, the study — an annual survey of dealer satisfaction with online buying services — found that car dealers are turning to the Internet more, with 61 percent signed up with at least one independent online buying service. A year ago, the figure was 55 percent.

Manufacturers Catching Up

In addition to dealers, car manufacturers are also making greater use of the Web. In 1999, only a few manufacturer sites featured a dealer-referral service, but now nearly every manufacturer’s site refers potential buyers to dealers.

Dealers are becoming more satisfied with manufacturer-buying services, the study found. Three-fourths of the manufacturers’ Web sites scored above the industry average in the latest dealer survey, up from just one-third of sites a year ago, as manufacturers play “catch-up” to independent online buying services.

“We’ve suspected from the beginning that automobile manufacturers would not stand idly by and let third parties control the sales process,” Denove said.

Denove added that “overall, dealers still receive more business from independents, but the manufacturer services are gaining quickly and will continue to gain share in the coming years.”

Beware of Buyers

Dealers do not see the Internet as a significant boon for luring car buyers, according to the study. Dealers tend to view car buyers who make initial contact with them over the Internet as “fickle customers who contact multiple dealers in search of unrealistic discounts.”

Car dealers have good reason for that view, Denove said, as only 10.4 percent of Internet inquiries result in the sale of a new car.

“On average, a dealer is more likely to sell a vehicle to a stranger who walks in off the street than an Internet shopper who comes in through the dealership’s ‘cyber door,'” said Denove.

Internet customers do visit more dealers than offline customers do, and usually end up receiving greater discounts, the study found.

AutoNation Leads

Among individual services for dealers, AutoNation ranked highest in overall satisfaction, according to the study.

Dealers rated Web sites for 14 separate attributes, ranging from speed of lead delivery to technical support, with the average score (on a scale ranging to 1,000) coming in at 532. AutoNation, which rated 655, was cited for its “extensive dealer-training programs,” as well as for providing a high level of business and strong dealer support.

Autobytel fell to seventh place in overall satisfaction, after ranking No. 1 in each of the past three years the study has been conducted. However, the site still provides more new-vehicle leads to dealers than any other service, J.D. Power said.

Among manufacturer-operated sites, Volkswagen’s VW.com was ranked highest, finishing second in overall satsifaction.

Indies Drive Used Cars

Dealers said they receive “higher quality” leads from their own Web sites than from independent buying services. On average, they reported 21 new-vehicle leads per month from their own Web sites, which is more than they get from manufacturer services but fewer than the number provided by independents.

The closing ratio for leads generated through manufacturers tends to be higher than for leads from independent services, the study found. An exception was CarsDirect.com, which has a higher closing ratio than any other service.

Used-car services “continue to be dominated” by independent companies, said J.D. Power. However, the study said that this trend might shift as manufacturers discover the benefits of the Internet in marketing their “certified” used-vehicle programs.

Cars.com provides the most used-vehicle leads per dealer, though more dealers use AutoTrader.com, according to J.D. Power.

6 Comments

  • While this is a very old thread, I read the posting and replies with interest.
    My company has built an shopping cart based ecommerce system for car dealers to add on to their websites. Not an inquiring system. Not a technical system able to wow with "Gee Whiz" flash presentations, but a straight-forward, comfortable, complete, shopping cart experience.
    Brick and Mortar dealers are now becoming Click and Mortar dealers.
    It will be interesting to see how car dealer ecommerce 2.0 plays out.
    If anyone wants to see it, there is a demo on our home page. http://www.ai-dealer.com

    • It has been my experience that the Internet Shopper wants to see live used inventory with photos and pricing, incentives, and specials. Mainly they want to arm themselves before coming to the dealership. Loyalty to the person providing the information and answering their emails is very small. Customers show up and grab any warm body and work from there.

      I take this from actual sales and actual buyer behavior. This is why I AM not a regular commissioned salesperson. A customer can roll up my email and put it in their back pocket and come in and grab that warm body and see if they can beat what I gave them. I still provide customer service and honesty. If I don’t have the vehicle, I say so and I follow up on all requests.

  • To my other comments on the untargeted, customer-unfriendly dealer websites, I add the following quotation:

    Angel Martinez (Fast Company): “The problem I see is that we’re so enamored with providing all the stuff we need to do to fulfill the transaction that we forget to provide the stuff that we need to have in order to build a relationship. Ultimately, customers want to have a relationship with a brand that reflects their attitudes — whether that brand is Fidelity, because it gives them peace of mind, or it’s Reebok, because it makes them feel cool. As a consumer, I want to invest in that relationship.” http://www.fastcompany.com/ftalk/boston/techno.html

    Dealers must establish relationships with the browsers that visit their sites by: 1. Designing customer-friendly sites that establish a brand for their dealership online, and 2. Interacting with the site browsers in a relationship-building way.

  • Here are some thoughts on the differences and similarities between the present-day showroom floor selling framework and the Internet car selling framework. Please note that the author does not have access to Internet buying/referral service training programs, and the following should be read with that caveat.

    The average car dealer’s website is a multi-splendoured site that can present: new car models with pictures, list prices, an Internet discount, and/or a list of inventory; an email message pop-up or form which transmits info to the dealer; used car inventory and prices; service hours, Internet service discounts, email appointment booking and reminder notices; dealership contact emails and/or phone numbers; a map; a link to the manufacturer. This site is too crowded and doesn’t offer the new car browser what he wants, while detracting from the new car dealer’s prime objective in dealing with the browser, i.e. consummating the deal. All a site like this does is prove the selling expertise of the dealer’s website provider.

    Just as a rookie salesperson will jump right into the deal without first slowing the potential customer down by getting him a coke or a coffee, the above average website throws everything out at once and asks the browser to choose a model. How many successful salespersons ask an ‘up’ what model he wants right off the bat. The browser, whether he knows it or not, wants to connect and engage in a conversation first – even if that conversation is of the sped-up Internet variety. In other words, ‘you have to slow the Internet browser down’.

  • cont.d “Car dealers have good reason for that view, Denove said, as only 10.4 percent of Internet inquiries result in the sale of a new car.” (from the responding dealer, I would imagine.)

    A more interesting stat would be… how many hours after first contacting a dealer or buying/referral service over the Internet does the surfer buy? If he/she were visiting a dealer in person it would be 72 hours. If you were a car dealer, would you be willing to guess more or less? Can you afford to guess?

    Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, if you are only selling 10.4% of internet inquiries, maybe you aren’t doing everything the business of the New Economy demands. After all, the market is always right and the New Economy purchaser is a different breed of buyer than the brand-loyal ‘lay-down’ of the past. And the New Economy purchaser is leading the market similar to the schoolteacher. The model of the Internet buyer is different than that of the past, and the dealership selling framework hasn’t adjusted.

  • “Dealers tend to view car buyers who make initial contact with them over the Internet as ‘fickle customers who contact multiple dealers in search of unrealistic discounts.'”

    This view reminds me of a car dealer’s view of schoolteachers buying cars in the ’70s. They researched, and haggled, and were fickle as heck. Then they bought Volvos. And funnily enough, they lead the market. A market that grew to depend on Consumer Reports. This same market is growing to depend upon the numerous research reports and buying options on the Internet. Fickle? – with all that info putting me in the driver’s seat, I would be too. And most car dealers’ Internet presence and interaction does nothing to consummate that fickleness.

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