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Online gold mine

Dealer's Web site, based on 20-group concept, is a forum for ideas

INNOVATIVE DEALERSHIPS
INSIGHT: How 7 pioneers are finding ways to stay in front
THE INTERNET
Greg Goebel Company: AutoChoice Hyundai Where: Evansville, Ind. Age: 47 Title: Owner Annual revenues: $13 million Store: AutoChoice Hyundai Franchise: Hyundai How I come up with my best ideas: "My 20 group and my Web site. I am an unabashed borrower of good ideas."

Greg Goebel wakes up at 3 a.m. with brainstorms for his Internet site. The Evansville, Ind., Hyundai dealer seems as consumed with it as he is with selling cars.

AutoeDealer.com, is no ordinary dealer Web site. It is an electronic version of the dealer "20 group," a forum in which dealers from around the United States regularly swap ideas.

"The site is designed to be everything I would look for myself," said Goebel, 47, owner of AutoChoice Hyundai. "I am an unabashed borrower of good ideas."

Auto retailing is a tough business, and in the sales slowdown, it has become even more difficult, Goebel said. Dealers need fresh approaches to the way they run their businesses, he said.

Participation in traditional 20 groups attest to this need. Dealers subscribe to 20 groups through the National Automobile Dealers Association and several private consulting firms, generally meeting quarterly with 20 dealers of the same make from noncompeting markets. They swap ideas that have made or saved them money. They often pay cash prizes to the dealer with the best idea at their meetings, and they encourage each other to do better.

Though it is less formal and open to dealers of all makes, AutoeDealer.com performs the same function as a 20 group.

"I have put a couple of different ideas up on there and asked (dealers) questions," said Chris Younggren, sales manager of Mills Chevrolet Co. in Moline, Ill. "I have used it as a resource and support group."

But unlike 20 groups, AutoeDealer.com is free to users, and they don't have to travel to participate. The site is financed through vendor advertising. A year after its $30,000 launch, the site is pulling in about $20,000 a month in revenue, Goebel said. He won't disclose further financial details.

AutoeDealer.com had as many as 11,000 franchised and independent dealers registered in its first year, Goebel said. Currently, 8,700 dealers are on the active e-mail address list. During its most popular live chat session - in which an attorney fielded questions about the Gramm-Leach-Bliley federal privacy act - 4,000 dealers joined the session.

"It was the darndest thing," said Keith Whann, the Dublin, Ohio, dealer attorney who led the June 19 session. "The numbers (of participants) were phenomenal. I have experience with the Internet, but I have never done a chat session like that."

A site is born

Goebel's interest in cars goes back as far as he can remember. When he was 4 years old and in nursery school, he says, his teacher asked the children if they knew the significance of Columbus Day. Goebel volunteered: "It is the day the new Pontiacs come out." And he was right.

His interest in computers goes back to 1969, when as a teen-ager he took his first programming class. Goebel, who studied marketing at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., also took college courses in computer programming.

As a dealer, Goebel has been active in state and national used-car dealer associations. He pioneered subprime lending in his Indiana market and has given seminars on the topic to many dealer organizations. He was used to dealers and vendors calling him with questions about what to do next. Because of his background in computers, AutoeDealer.com was a natural extension of these discussions. "It was an idea that just kept growing," said Goebel. "I started writing the schematics in June of last year and went online in September of last year. We have been adding about 1,000 dealers a month."

Chatting it up

Goebel has handled the technical side of the site as well as selecting the discussion topics and speakers. His daughter, Anna Flittner, of Evansville, Ind., is the sales director, and two free-lance writers edit the site. He expects to expand the staff, adding some technical experts within a month.

AutoeDealer.com has a number of features to help dealers improve their operations, including:

  • Live chat sessions. Dealers log on, enter their e-mail address and type in inquiries and responses during a live chat on topics of concern, such as the availability of retail installment lenders and how to build traffic in a sales slump. Some chat sessions are led by experts such as Whann. The site hosts multiple sessions weekly, and the schedule is sent by e-mail to all who register their e-mail addresses on the site.

  • IdeaSession.com. This section is devoted to contests in which dealers, dealer employees or suppliers can post ideas that have made or saved dealerships money. Dealers who use the site rate the ideas, and entrants have a crack at monthly cash prizes of $250 for the winning idea in each of 12 categories. At the end of the year, all the ideas compete for a $5,000 cash prize. The ideas are transferred to an online archive 28 days after they are posted.

  • DealerOPINION.com. Dealers respond to online surveys regarding industry issues. Some of the surveys ask dealers to rate vendors on service quality, accessibility and reliability. The vendor surveys ask dealers if they have used a certain vendor and, if so, whether or not they would use them again. The results are archived online.

  • FundsQuick.com. Dealers can research what lenders serve their area and access their Web sites through a link on AutoeDealer.com.

  • DealerSuppliers.com. Dealers can obtain basic information about suppliers in their state, including the address, phone number, fax number, e-mail address and primary contact. Via e-mail, they can request more information.

    Goebel intends to add online seminars to the site. Dealers and their employees would pay an enrollment fee, and seminars would be conducted using interactive video.

    Goebel said perhaps the biggest drawback to participation on AutoeDealer.com is the need for dealers to offer questions and responses during chat sessions. Many dealers are poor typists and don't like fumbling over a keyboard, he said.

    Often, there is a lag time of a few minutes before the discussion starts because so many of the dealers are hunting and pecking, he said. But the sessions are as long as 90 minutes, giving even the slowest dealers plenty of time to type an inquiry.

    Considering AutoeDealer.com's thousands of participants, typing phobia is no obstacle for dealers in search of profitable ideas.

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