February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Car dealers come of age on the Internet

No longer the slowpokes on the information superhighway, car dealers are upgrading their web sites to better interact with vehicle shoppers as well as with manufacturers.

No longer the slowpokes on the information superhighway, car dealers are upgrading their web sites to better interact with vehicle shoppers as well as with manufacturers.

Nearly all U.S. car dealers now have a basic web site offering ways for shoppers to contact them, and just over half, or 51.7%, employ dedicated Internet sales reps, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.

But the NADA survey of almost 400 automotive retailers nationwide found that dealers are making the biggest stride in adding interactive tools that give online shoppers new ways to research and price cars, trucks and sports utility vehicles and schedule appointments. Six years ago only 57% of dealers offered manufacturer suggested retail pricing data online vs. 88% in 2006.

In 2006, 68.3% of auto dealers had an interactive tool that enables owners to book a service appointment, compared to only 41.8% in 2000. In addition, 75.5% of dealers last year let consumers use their web site to submit financial forms and 68% offered car buyers the option to schedule a specific time to visit a showroom.

More important, the Internet is helping dealers to close more sales, with the web generating an average of 62 leads per month in 2006 vs. 32 monthly leads in 2000. On average last year, dealers closed on about 30% of all Internet leads, compared with 18.5% in 2000.

But dealers still have room for improvement, the NADA says. Only 17.1% of dealers respond to a web-based customer inquiry within 20 minutes, compared with 43.9% within one hour; 26.5% within six hours; 10.8% within one business day and 1.7% between one and three business days, the study found.

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