September 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

Auto dealers learn to drive the web—or else

(Page 2 of 3)

Indeed, competition within the online car industry itself is providing sellers with more options on how to reach and engage consumers. In the past couple of years, as dealers have migrated toward more sophisticated web strategies with their own sites offering more interactive, shopper-friendly features, they’ve put the pressure on the third-party e-marketplaces to step up their game, Taylor says.

Coastal Hyundai, for instance, has implemented several upgrades to its CoastalHyundai.com, which is hosted by Dealer.com but managed by Coastal Hyundai. Instead of paying the typical $20-$25 to e-marketplaces for customer leads including name and e-mail or phone numbers, Wahy now pays about $6 a lead by managing its own search marketing campaigns through Dealer.com’s Dominator search marketing service, which uploads car inventory data to search engine indexes and automates keyword bidding. The service also optimizes CoastalHyundai.com for natural search rankings by managing content and page tags for pick up by search engine crawlers.

Coastal Hyundai uses Dealer.com’s Sales360 web site management system to automatically generate pop-up coupons valued at up to $250 toward a car purchase for site visitors who enter an e-mail address or phone number. While that tool has proven effective in garnering new contact information, Wahy builds on the strategy by working with his local advertising agency to e-mail additional coupons good for gasoline purchases for shoppers who close on a deal.

The Florida dealer also runs videos of its own TV commercials on its web site, providing consistency in cross-channel marketing and bringing broadcast pitches to shoppers who prefer the web over TV, Wahy says. He’s also considering adding vehicle-comparison tools, available from providers such as Kelley Blue Book Co. Inc. and Advanta-Star, he adds.

The inventory benefit

Getting and serving new customers for motor vehicles isn’t the only job served by the web, says Taylor. By analyzing what shoppers are viewing online, through their own web site analytics programs and data reports from third-party e-marketplaces, for instance, dealers pinched by limited car-storage space are better able to plan inventory stocks that suit consumer interests, he adds.

Evanston Subaru, which also uses technology from Dealer.com, offers an online feature that lets shoppers enter their desired monthly payment and down payment to find a list of vehicles, complete with full details, that meet those cost figures. Such features cut to what consumers want from dealers, who need to provide specifics on pricing and vehicle features in order to lure shoppers into showrooms, Aksoy says. “When we asked consumers what kind of online information will get them to contact a dealer, they say it’s a competitive price,” she says. “The best dealers are responding online with exact pricing and exact specifications.”

That kind of dealer initiative, meanwhile, has sparked upgrades by third-party e-marketplaces. “AutoTrader, DealerTrack and other marketplaces are moving aggressively to provide a higher level of service to car dealers,” Taylor says.

Overstock.com Inc., since launching its Overstock Cars section late last year, has developed a “Dutch auction” selling tool that lets car dealers automatically drop car prices daily-a feature designed to help dealers sell inventory within a manufacturer’s grace period, typically about 60 days, before they have to pay wholesale invoices, says Overstock chairman and CEO Patrick Byrne.

Overstock charges dealers a monthly subscription fee ranging from $650 for up to 60 cars listed to $1,600 for 61 or more, on a 12-month contract.

Consumer’s advantage

In July, AutoTrader launched a software suite to manage vehicle inventory and customer data, including product images, merchandising displays and customer prospect lists. The suite includes a dashboard for viewing overall data and performance metrics, such as inventory levels of hot-selling vehicles and clickstream data showing most-searched-for products. In addition, AutoTrader recently entered an exclusive deal with Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Autos site to provide its 3 million-plus vehicle listings for the site’s internal search engine.

But if the Internet gives more power to dealers to interact with consumers, it also empowers consumers to sell their own vehicles directly to other consumers. AutoTrader last month upgraded its car-selling features designed for individual sellers-which can cut into the profitable used-car market coveted by new-car dealers.

Rival Autobytel Inc. recently launched a “click-to-phone” feature powered by eStara Inc., which lets shoppers enter phone numbers in an online information-request form to receive a callback from a car dealer. The feature is designed to help dealers immediately contact a prospect and has increased by about half the number of qualified leads received by dealers after online shoppers fill out online forms, Autobytel says.

Other major providers of web site infrastructure and services to auto dealers, whether they’re looking to upgrade their own sites or sell through e-marketplaces, include Automatic Data Processing Inc., The Reynolds and Reynolds Co. and The Cobalt Group. Still other online car-selling providers for dealers include Auto Jini, HomeNet Inc., WorldNow.com and Rocket City Automotive Group Inc. Rocket City, which provides web tools for car sellers on eBay.com, recently signed a deal with Dealer Fusion to sell the latter’s CompleteAuto Listing Software for feeding product inventory to eBay.

Suiting customers

Giving customers what they want in both products and service, of course, still takes precedence regardless of a car seller’s technology strategy, experts say. “If your service department isn’t making customers happy, it doesn’t matter how well your web site and information systems function,” Taylor says.

For all the new web technology and strategies at Coastal Hyundai, it’s only as good as the personal service it supports, Wahy says. “The web brings the customer to me faster,” he says. “But if I don’t follow up quickly with individual contact, then everything else I did was wasted.”

paul@verticalwebmedia.com

eBay Motors still shifting to higher gear

After launching in early 2000, it took four years for eBay Motors to sell its millionth vehicle. The second million came two years later, in August 2006. Ranked second in unique visitor traffic to e-commerce sites, following eBay.com, according to a February 2007 report by Hitwise, eBay Motors gets more than 12 million unique visitors monthly. “We sell a car on eBay every 52 seconds,” says Rob Chesney, vice president of eBay Motors.

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