September 22, 2003, 12:00 AM

Auto dealers struggle to keep online shoppers happy, study says

When it comes to shopping for new and used vehicles online, choosy consumers are demanding that dealers present them with more detailed information and options long before they will even consider stepping into a showroom.

When it comes to shopping for new and used vehicles online, choosy consumers are demanding that dealers present them with more detailed information and options long before they will even consider stepping into a showroom.

But it’s unclear just how fast dealers are responding with enhanced web sites and comparison-shopping options.

A new study from Friedman-Swift Associates, a Cincinnati automotive industry research firm, asked more than 300 online vehicle shoppers what features and functions they expected to find when they visited a dealer’s web site.

In addition to the ability to compare an individual dealer’s price against the manufacturer’s suggested retail price online, shoppers also wanted:

• Special vehicle discounts for Internet shoppers
• Online quotes
• Access to National Automobile Dealer Association Used Car Guide and Kelley Blue Book information
• Side-by-side vehicle comparisons and inventory searches complete with pictures
• Trade-in value estimates
• Independent new model reviews

“The research shows that consumers will spend considerable time on a dealer’s web site looking for specific pieces of information before they will come in for a personal visit,” says Judy George, chief operating officer and lead researcher for Friedman-Swift, which conducts the annual study with NADA. “80% of online shoppers are looking for price and inventory. They know if one dealership site doesn’t have the data they want, they are only a click away from another.”

The Friedman-Swift study says a typical online vehicle shopper plans on making a purchase within 60 days and is primarily in the market for a used car or truck. The typical shopper is also male, age 40, with an annual income of around $64,000.

“One out of every five vehicles sold is bought by a shopper who visited a dealer’s web site first,” George says. “Dealers need to really think about the Internet as a serious sales and marketing tool.”

But while almost all dealers have a web presence or information posted on some other independent automotive research or manufacturer’s site, another study from Jupiter Research suggests that many dealerships lack the money and resources to meet the rising demand for more enhancements.

“Successful dealers are investing in web-based tools to accelerate their use of the Internet as an integrated sales channel,” says Belis Aksoy, a Jupiter automotive analyst. “However, 57% have an annual information technology budget of less than $20,000, which is insufficient to acquire tools and services.”

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