Chris Exposito, general manager of Superior Acura in Overland Park, Kan., readily admits that he is not an Internet enthusiast.
'I've got about 30 years in the business,' Exposito says. 'I use computers because I have to.'
However, that has not prevented Superior Acura, owned by the Hendrick Automotive Group, from establishing an extensive Web site. Nor has it kept Exposito from recognizing the potential of the Internet as a sales forum.
'I would say every dealer should have some presence on the Net,' he says. 'Five percent of our business I can attribute directly to the Internet, but I think it's bigger than that because a lot of customers don't identify themselves when they come through the door as having contacted us through the Internet.
'The real number is probably 10 to 15 percent, maybe 20 percent, who have had some form of contact with us on the Net.'
Superior Acura has built that level of Net activity because it felt its customers would demand it, Exposito says. Acura customers are particularly likely to be Internet shoppers, in his view.
'I feel that I have to be there,' Exposito says. 'Acura customers are 99 percent college-educated, affluent, business-type people. They have computers in their offices and they like to use them.'
One key to making the Web site effective has been to designate a manager with responsibility for online contacts.
Patrick Steiner is Superior Acura's Web site manager; his phone number, cell-phone number, fax and e-mail are listed on the page, along with a pledge to check his e-mail every two hours.
Steiner posts several 'Internet specials' each day.
'You have to get the right person. I'm fortunate to have a young individual who is a computer nut,' Exposito says. 'I didn't try to take an old car dog and throw him on the computer and say, 'Here's your new job.''
A key part of Steiner's responsibilities is to respond promptly to all online contacts.
The dealership's goal is to respond the same day if possible, the next day at the latest. Any slower response will probably be too late - the Internet shopper will have found action elsewhere.
Superior Acura's site is also updated daily to reflect changes in inventory and special offers, Exposito says.
Although Internet shoppers tend to be well informed about used-car guide values and dealer-invoice prices, that does not prevent a dealer from making a profit, he says.
'Even though the Net customers know what our margins are, you still have to make a profit,' Exposito says. 'We don't try to sell cars any cheaper (on the Net), but sometimes you have to do a little more justifying of your price.'
For Superior Acura, the Web site is particularly valuable in building used-car sales.
Buyers looking for a hard-to-find model are inclined to scour the Net over a wide geographic range, he says. That is where Exposito finds an online service like CarPoint to be valuable.
'It generates mostly used-car traffic for some of our upper-end used cars,' he says. 'If someone wants a particular car, it's easier to shop the Net.'
Although Net shoppers can use their knowledge and access to multiple dealers to beat down prices of new cars, that is not always the case, he says. The market for hot-selling cars still adheres to the laws of supply and demand.
Acura's 3.2TL, for example, sells for the manufacturer's suggested retail price online and on the lot, according to Exposito. In fact, Superior Acura's site recently featured a testimonial and photo of a New Jersey customer who traveled to the dealership to buy a 3.2TL.
The Cobalt Group in Seattle set up Superior Acura's site and helps update the look, costing about $100 per month, Exposito says. He advises dealers to use a company that is experienced with dealership Web sites.
Superior Acura is in the top 5 percent of Acura dealers in the United States in Web traffic, registering 1,200 to 1,500 page hits monthly, Exposito says. But he adds that it costs money to build traffic.
'You can't start up a Web site and think the people will just come,' he says. 'You have to advertise the site to get the hits.'
The site is mentioned in all dealership ads. But Superior Acura also runs banner ads on the home pages of popular local sites, such as that of The Kansas City Star newspaper. Web site-specific advertising costs about $500 per month, and Exposito estimates that the overall cost of the site is $3,000 per month.
Although he is not thrilled about the expense, Exposito says Superior Acura is dedicated to running a top-notch site. The site sells cars today and it keeps the dealership prepared for the possibility that online contact could become a major sales channel.
'I think it's years down the road,' Exposito says. 'It just depends on what the manufacturers want to do and on the big public groups.'