How to bring in buyers

AutoNation's decision to generate more of its own sales leads and move away from third-party car Web sites raises a question: What is the best way for dealerships to attract buyers?

It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson negotiating for lower rates on sales leads and advertising. Lots of U.S. dealerships drop a big site, such as autotrader.com or cars.com, only to return months later for a smaller, less costly package.

But that misses the point. The auto sales process is evolving rapidly. Dealers wonder whether their brick-and-mortar investment is effective. Indeed, as consumers increasingly shop for autos online, are high-overhead dealerships even needed?

It's not surprising that some dealers demand more proof of influence from Web sites than from newspapers, TV and radio.

Dealers know from long experience that traditional media only steer customers toward them. But they're not entirely sure online services won't eventually replace them.

The business of selling cars is changing. For now, lead generators can do a better job documenting their influence on sales, and dealers and automakers can improve selling efficiency. But long term, the most engaged parties are likely to win.