Village Ford's Web site has all the elements of a first-rate dealer site. Villageford.com makes clever use of music and animation. It is easy to navigate. It lets shoppers browse updated new- and used-vehicle inventory, arrange test drives, make service appointments and order parts. It even keeps track of customers' service histories and prompts the shop to send service reminders.
But the high-volume, Dearborn, Mich., dealership, a finalist in the 1999 Automotive News Web Site Contest, has found there is one vital thing the site lacks: vehicle sales results.
Village Ford, which sells 450 new vehicles a month, can trace only 11 vehicle sales a month to the Internet. Though the store may have made a few more Internet-related sales than the few it tallied - because not all Internet-related sales can be traced easily - the volume has been a disappointment to General Manager Bob Wheat.
'We had 151 real prospects (in one month) - that's genuine inquiries. Forty or 50 of those inquiries were for parts. Maybe 101 were really interested in buying a car,' Wheat said. 'We only had 10 or 11 deliveries, or a 10 percent close ratio. Our close ratio in the showroom is almost 30 percent.'
Though Wheat believes the Internet has tremendous potential, dealer systems technology is not where it could be. The lack of truly integrated systems prevents the dealership from taking full advantage of Internet leads. And though Village Ford promotes the site heavily through conventional advertising, consumer awareness is still too low.
'There is no textbook on this yet. There is no historic information' on Internet marketing, Wheat said. 'These are issues that all dealers are grappling with right now.'
The Internet already has shown promise as an inexpensive advertising medium. Wheat has begun to promote special Internet-only deals on used vehicles he would like to clear off the lot.
'Rather than put it in the paper and spend $6,000 to $7,000 on a quarter-page ad in the Detroit Free Press, we offer it on the Internet,' he said. 'This gives Internet users a special price and allows them to preview cars for sale. We have done a few of these sales and we are very pleased.'
One of the three cars Village Ford promoted online sold in just a few days. The Web site is already up and running, so the Internet specials cost nothing but the time it takes to change the site's content.
The dealership also advertises Internet-only deals on parts, service and extended service plans. For example, online shoppers qualify for a $100 discount on an extended service policy.
But it is still too soon to tell the influence the Internet has had on aftermarket and service business. The dealership has been promoting the specials for less than a year.
The Internet has great potential to kindle repeat business, Wheat believes. But his attempts to connect with customers have been frustrating. The dealership's proprietary computer system hinders customer follow-up.
Like many other dealerships, Village Ford has been using a dealer management system from one of the major providers of dealer systems - Universal Computer Systems of Houston. The major providers' proprietary systems can make it difficult for dealers to add new technology from outside vendors.
'UCS is the best system around, but they are extraordinarily proprietary. It is very difficult to get them to move and coordinate with us. We almost have to circumvent them,' Wheat said. 'They are so worried another company will get into their programming.'
The service appointment system shows how the lack of integration undermines Internet marketing. The Village Ford Web site allows customers to make service appointments online. But the Web site is not integrated with the dealership's service department computer. So online appointments are not booked along with the appointments made by phone or from walk-in traffic.
Online customers come into the shop thinking they have scheduled an appointment, but the shop has no record of it. The shop might be too busy to fix the Internet customer's car even though he set up an appointment. As a result, online scheduling can undermine - instead of enhance - customer satisfaction.
'I do not have the Internet site interwoven with my in-house computer system,' Wheat explained. 'So we still need a human being to tell them, `We can't do it at 2 p.m. It will have to be at 4 p.m.' '
The Village Ford site invites visitors to join a club called the 'Village Ford Inter-Circle.' It is a clever strategy to build a list of e-mail addresses and to build relationships with customers and prospects. The club offers a variety of benefits, including:
$100 off extended warranties
Updates on incentives programs
10 percent off accessories
Automated service reminders
Discounts on used vehicles
Other specials on products and services.
Wheat is thinking about adding some kind of alert to lease customers just before their lease contract expires. Consumer leases represent about 70 percent of Village Ford's new-vehicle sales.
Despite the club's benefits, online shoppers are reluctant to register for regular e-mail from the dealership. Some have privacy concerns. Others are tire-kickers and are not ready to commit to an e-mail service from a dealership. Online shoppers also might not drive a Ford Motor Co. product and therefore would not be interested in receiving reminders. Or they already patronize another service facility.
'If they are driving a 2-year-old vehicle they bought somewhere else, why join the club?' Wheat asked.
Because of the lack of online registrants, Village Ford has been asking walk-in customers and prospects for their e-mail addresses and inviting them to join the club. The dealership has signed up about 320 club members, most of them previous customers. But so far, the club has not attracted new business.
Wheat has been promoting the Village Ford site in the dealership's TV and radio commercials. But he believes the dealership simply needs to do a better job selling the site and club membership to showroom visitors.
Said Wheat: 'We need to ask people if they want to be in our Web site club more often. I am thinking about requiring it' of the sales force. 'We've talked about this at a staff meeting and we don't want to let this slide.'