A Web site may not bring in big profits, but it is essential for a dealer who wants to be competitive in the next century, according to one of the early marketers of automobiles over the Internet.
'It's absolutely vital,' says David Stein, managing partner at Roger Beasley Volvo in Austin, Texas. 'An Internet presence is definitely a thing of the future.'
Measured in cyber years, it was the distant past when Stein in 1994 put together the Volvo dealership's Internet site. The page was just the second to market autos on the fledgling Web.
'That was back before the Web was even the Web,' Stein recalls, explaining that the first variation of the page functioned as sort of a teletype site where information could be typed back and forth between potential customers and the dealership.
'With the technology of today, you can go in and design your own first-class Web page if you want,' Stein says.
The Volvo page has spawned a second Internet presence for the company's Porsche-Saab store, also in Austin.
Interested shoppers can browse the inventory and get other information on those makes at www.porschesaab.com.
Both sites are going through changes. Stein is updating the Porsche-Saab site with new graphics to give it a fresher look. The Volvo home page is being redone according to a template that Volvo wants all dealers to use so that buyers get a consistent experience when shopping for those vehicles.
Stein is quick to point out that the sites have not been highly profitable for his dealerships because most high-end buyers go directly to factory Web pages to research vehicles they are interested in buying.
'High-line vehicles have never done real well off the Web,' he says.
In the computer-savvy Austin market, the dealership's pages produce 35 to 50 new- and used-car leads per month, Stein says, and around 20 percent of those lead to sales.
'Where I do well is scheduling service and parts orders' from car owners who like the convenience of scheduling those services over the Internet, Stein notes.
Because profits may not be large, dealers should be careful about what they pay to get their Web sites designed and running, Stein warns.
'If you're paying more than $400 a month, you're getting ripped off,' he says.
Stein says there are 'a lot of companies that charge $1,500 a month' for Internet services that can be provided by others for a lot less. 'It's dealers beware.'
A dealer paying $250 to $400 per month for Internet services should be getting a Web page with a monthly service that includes a 'visual auto mall' where buyers can see pictures and descriptions of vehicles for sale, Stein notes.
In addition, new product information scanned from brochures, parts ordering and service scheduling should be available.
The page should include credit applications in states where that service is allowed by law, he adds.
Stein also stresses that online buying services generally are not worth the high price tags they carry. He says 85 to 90 percent of the leads he was getting from an unnamed buying service were also showing up on his Web sites.
'If you take your Internet program seriously and have somebody who works on it daily ... you don't need those providers,' Stein says of the online buying services. 'A lot of people are paying for these qualified (leads) that they are getting anyway.'
SPREAD THE WORD
He stresses that dealers who advertise their Web sites 'with every piece of media you produce,' including newspaper ads, business cards and brochures, will find the same leads that come from buying services.
Stein says he discovered that a buying service he once used continued sending him leads even after he pulled the plug to rely on his Web site for that information. He reasoned the leads are still coming because the service is afraid of legal problems if they send prospective customers from his area to a dealership in another part of the state.
Dealers should understand that the key to making a Web site work is to 'have somebody that can work it daily,' Stein says. E-mail inquiries to his sites are answered as soon as possible with a return e-mail, fax or telephone call, if the prospective customer has included a telephone number.
Says Stein: 'We have a customer relations manager who devotes her time to making sure the e-mail gets answered.'