You don't survive for more than 50 years in the auto business without understanding the need to keep pace with the times.
Bob Tasca Sr., founder and chairman of Tasca Ford and Tasca Lincoln-Mercury, had never even turned on a computer.
However, customer surveys were suddenly showing that up to 65 percent of his Ford customers not only owned computers, but had access to the Internet. So, when grandson Bob Tasca III proposed launching a Web site in 1994, both Bob Sr. and Bob Jr., the dealership's president, were ready to listen.
Tasca III saw cyberspace as a marvelous opportunity for the family business, but like his grandfather and father, he was cautious about substituting technology for the personal touch at the family's two dealerships. The stores are in different states but only a half-mile apart, and the family thinks of them as one operation. They plan to build a new facility in Rhode Island to combine the three makes.
'I looked at some sites and it was almost as if they were designed to please the dealer, not help the customer,' Tasca III says. 'I wanted something that would help us build an electronic relationship with the customer.'
That meant resisting the bells and whistles. 'Too many frills and you slow down the system,' says Tasca. 'Customers are trying to save time by using the Internet. You need to assist that process.'
REDESIGNED IN 1997
The first site, www.tasca.com, was launched in early 1995, designed by an outside firm for $1,000. By 1997, Tasca was ready to redesign and took on the task himself. He stuck to the basics: access to new and used inventories, the ability to schedule service or road tests, the specials running that month. He also built in dealer-level access so he could update as needed.
Tasca placed the Web address on stationery, key tags and license-plate frames and in advertisements, and ran billboards promoting the new service. By December 1998, the site was recording 1,200 hits per month. For $99 per month, the company hosting the site keeps track of all traffic and provides insight on which features are most popular (inventory) and when customers are looking (busiest times: noon hour and 11 p.m.).
It is up to Tasca to field all inquiries generated, currently about 40 per month. A full-time coordinator follows up on each request, scheduling service or road tests, providing information or discussing price.
'It's a totally different way to sell a car,' says Tasca. 'It used to be that we would negotiate with the buyer. Now, they negotiate with us.
They come into the process armed with information off the Internet, not all of it accurate. Sometimes we have to slow them down and determine what it is they really want.'
Tasca's Web page attempts to help confused Internet customers with its 'Tips from Tasca' answers to commonly asked questions. The site also includes segments on Tasca's history and selling philosophy.
'If you're going to have a Web site, you need to answer the question, 'Why should you buy a car from us?'' says Tasca. 'If you don't, your Web site can end up being a detriment instead of an asset.'
So far, tasca.com has been an asset, he claims. Even customers walking into the dealership are offered the chance to browse inventory at the showroom's computer kiosk.
The dealership still contracts with Autobytel.com Inc., the car-buying service Tasca likens to a 'national fishing net.' Together, Autobytel.com and tasca.com generate about 150 leads per month. Tasca claims tasca.com has a better conversion rate.
'We're confident that at least 15 sales per month are due to our presence on the Internet,' he says. 'Probably many more, because we don't always know how many people walking into our showroom have browsed our Web site first.'
Tasca believes the industry has seen only the tip of the iceberg in Internet marketing, but he also believes the human element will never be eliminated. 'There is no substitute for actually sitting in the driver's seat,' says Tasca. 'A car is the second largest investment the average person will ever make. They're not going to buy it without seeing it first.'