Six months ago, the nation's second largest Toyota dealership, Sterling McCall Toyota of Houston, took a bold step to expand its Internet marketing capabilities.
While already connected to Cobalt Group's DealerNet site through its distributor Gulf States Toyota (see previous story), McCall wanted to create a unique site of its own on which customers could browse current inventory of new and used cars.
'If you look at the Cobalt site (www.smccalltoyota.com), our site looks very similar to those of our competitors within the given template,' says Brad Dupuis, Sterling McCall Toyota's business development manager. Dupuis, who is also the training director, says the dealership gets about 100 leads a month from DealerNet.
'We wanted our own site that would be unique and would have the custom features that would help us sell more cars,' he added.
The dealership decided to improve on its secondary site (www.sterlingmccalltoyota.com), which had what Dupuis calls basic 'Yellow Page ad' information: name, address, telephone number and departments.
It hired Automark Group Inc. of Fairfax, Va., an Internet site designer, to give the site a sharp new appearance and customer friendly features such as express quote, payment calculator and other financing information. There's even an opportunity for visitors to apply for a job or make comments on the site itself.
'With both Web sites, we're now getting about 200 leads a month and closing about 10 percent of those,' says Dupuis. The dealership sold about 5,500 new and 3,000 used vehicles last year.
'We'd like to double that to 400 to 500 leads a month, which would result in 40 to 50 closed deals,' he says.
SPREADING THE WORD
McCall plans to increase the numbers by advertising its own Web site through its traditional advertising and adding three more electronic commerce managers by July. The dealership currently has one e-commerce manager to handle Internet customers from initial contact to final delivery.
In addition, the dealership wants to give customers more up-to-date information about its inventory. Unlike the Cobalt-designed site, the new Automark-designed site features both new- and used-car inventory, which stays current within one to two hours. For instance, if a car is sold at noon, it will be removed from the online inventory by 2 p.m.
'Most dealerships don't update their Web sites in terms of inventory for three or four days,' says Dupuis, who uses a Dealers Solutions Inc. system and Automark's kiosk to manage the inventory.
That should improve customer relations, too, since customers will see what's actually in stock instead of coming in to see a car that was sold the day before.
Some Toyota dealers within Gulf States' territory have been reluctant to show new-car inventory on the Internet. They say customers will look for a particular model and move on to their competitor if they don't see it in their inventory.
Since McCall is the nation's largest seller of used Toyotas, it wanted to give its used-car department a place on the Web site. The dealership recently began putting high-resolution digital pictures of its used vehicles on its own Internet site. Customers can also call up the window sticker of each used vehicle.
'The used-car results have been very, very limited,' says Dupuis, who adds that McCall hopes to increase used-car sales through mentioning the Web site in its traditional used-car ads.
The dealership also hopes to deliver a value message to the price-sensitive shoppers who surf the Web. McCall says Internet customers are given a special Internet price on new vehicles, typically 2 to 3 percent over dealer invoice. Dupuis admits that Internet customers sometimes get better prices than walk-in customers.
'The Internet customers are very educated. They know the cost of the vehicle and they know the trade-in value of their vehicle,' says Dupuis.
In addition to special Internet prices, the dealership also advertises a Toyota Clearance Zone, with prices as much as $4,000 below sticker or zero percent financing.
McCall uses both Microsoft CarPoint and Autoweb car-buying services, but he has not seen the '30 to 33 percent' closing ratios both companies have promised. Dupuis would eventually like to drop the buying services as traditional ads increase awareness of the site.
Automark says Sterling McCall typically posts 1,000 to 1,500 cars on its Web site. More than half of visitors' time on the site is spent searching through inventory and submitting 'I'm interested' applications.
The most-used features on the site include the payment estimator, employment opportunities and the clearance zone. In the last 1,800 user sessions, the average time per session was 15 minutes and 10 seconds, which Automark says is well above the 3-minute national average for a Web site.