Web site links 'green' car buyers with dealers

Mark Bonfigli, CEO of Earthcars.comís parent company, Dealer.com, wants to build a recognized brand for eco-friendly new and used vehicles. Photo credit: CAROLYN BATES
Many Web sites provide information on hybrids and other environmentally friendly vehicles.

But www.earthcars.com takes "green" a step further. The year-old site links consumers looking for hybrids or other alternative-fuel vehicles with dealerships that have the vehicles in stock.

And unlike the typical lead referral site, Earthcars.com provides the leads to dealers for free.

"This part of our business does not actually make us money; it actually loses us a nice amount," says Mark Bonfigli, CEO of Dealer.com Inc., the parent company of Earthcars.com. "It's really a donation to the environment. That's really the way we look at it."

Dealer.com, of Burlington, Vt., provides dealerships in North America with services that include Web sites, search engine marketing, inventory and customer relationship management tools, and online marketing and advertising analysis tools.

Earthcars.com is a one-stop shopping portal for new and used earth-friendly vehicles, Bonfigli says. Consumers can research, compare and find hybrids, electric vehicles and other alternative-fuel cars and trucks through one site, he says.

So far, Earthcars.com has certified 4,000 dealerships as stocking environmentally friendly cars and trucks. These stores can upload their inventory to Earthcars.com or allow the site to pull the inventory from the store's dealership management system.

Hunting for hybrids

Consumers know where to go on the Internet to buy new and used vehicles, Bonfigli says. "But if you ask a consumer, 'Where do you go today to find a vehicle that is actually better for the environment that you could buy tomorrow morning?' they probably won't be able to give you an answer," he says.

"Consumers don't really understand that there are many, many choices right now and tens of thousands of vehicles waiting to be purchased."

Earthcars.com allows a consumer to search for a vehicle at dealerships in his or her area by model year, model, miles per gallon in city driving, mpg highway and price range.

The site also has a rating system to evaluate the environmental friendliness of each qualifying vehicle. Earthcars.com considers factors such as fuel economy, emissions and powertrain type. It also analyzes each manufacturer to determine its green commitment.

Earthcars.com has about 10 employees at any time, mostly working on content for the site.

Bonfigli says his goal is to build a brand that is universally recognized, "because I think there needs to be one really cool brand for consumers to point to, and we would love it to be Earthcars."

Perfect fit

Alex Snyder, director of e-commerce at the Checkered Flag Auto Group in Virginia Beach, Va., has been getting customers directly from his dealership group's link on Earthcars.com.

"I love what it is," Snyder says. "It works very well for us because we're primarily a foreign car dealership, and all the franchises we carry for the most part are fuel-efficient and green, so it fits in with us perfectly."

The Checkered Flag group has 12 import brands, including Honda, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen and Smart.

Of the 2,400 to 2,800 vehicles in the group's inventory, about 1,500 to 1,800 are worthy of Earthcars.com, Snyder says.

He says he's trying to persuade Earthcars.com to let him use its Trip Simulator feature on his group's Web site.

"It's one of the neatest features I've seen on an automotive Web site," Snyder says.

The Trip Simulator is an interactive distance comparison map. After choosing a hybrid, electric, compressed natural gas, unleaded or diesel vehicle from a drop-down menu, Earthcars.com calculates how far your model will go on a tank of fuel and illustrates the range by a circle on a map of the United States.

Green inside and out

Green is a notion that Bonfigli carries over into his Dealer.com headquarters in Burlington.

Dealer.com recently moved into its new headquarters, built to specifications under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. The third-party certification program rates the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

LEED's certification levels are regular, silver, gold and, at the top, platinum. Dealer.com expects a silver-level certification.

"There's certain material you can use and paints you can use and lighting and solar panels and you name it — the whole building from the ground up was built with that focus," Bonfigli says.

Dealer.com has 160 employees. They are served organic foods in the building's cafe, run or walk on an indoor track, play indoor tennis or shoot hoops on an indoor basketball court.

"Everything is built around health and wellness," says Bonfigli, "not just the environment outside of it but also the environment inside." 

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