If an automobile dealer's Web site isn't user-friendly, customers will leave quickly - and they won't be back.
That is the assessment of Lynn Kimmel, president of Lockhart Automotive Group's Saturn dealerships in Indianapolis, Greenwood and Fishers, Ind. She also is vice president of Lockhart Cadillac, which has one location in Indianapolis and one in Greenwood.
Her brother, Mark Lockhart, is president of the Cadillac dealerships and vice president of the Saturn dealerships. All five dealerships are part of the Lockhart Automotive Group.
'First and foremost is creating a Web site that is easy to navigate,' Kimmel says. 'If your surfers get frustrated, their interest in your product will diminish, and they will not return.'
How to do this? Keep it simple, current, useful and quick to use.
The dealership sites offer a used-car inventory, plus the ability to request a specific new model, registration for a vehicle test drive, online credit application, newsletters with service coupons, the CarClub site for Saturn owners and marketing events.
The sites link to their respective dealerships so surfers can receive up-to-date product information. Inventories are updated daily.
'Nothing frustrates the consumer more than to come in with a picture of a vehicle off the Web and to find out that it is sold,' Kimmel says.
The dealership strives to answer e-mail inquiries from the site within an hour. The eventual goal is to respond within 15 minutes. The Saturn site is checked hourly.
'We mirror marketing campaigns (with the manufacturer) simultaneously so that no matter what site you are on, you are receiving the same information,' Kimmel says.
The group is researching the possibility of using online buying services to increase its Internet presence. At present, the dealerships promote their Web sites via cable, TV, radio, newspaper, billboards and direct mail. Seven percent to 9 percent of the dealerships' foot traffic is generated after linking to the site.
'We see continuous growth in this area, especially as we see the younger generation coming up,' Kimmel says. 'Some of them have been using the computer since they were 2 or 3.'
Kimmel says the new- and used-car sections are the most visited areas on the site. 'You can literally build a Saturn online, and we will price the car for you.'
Graphics are kept simple to speed up navigation.
'People surfing a product site are not necessarily looking for cool stuff,' Kimmel says. 'They want information and convenience.'
The cost of running the Saturn site includes a $229 a month charge for each facility for hosting and troubleshooting services by a management company, as well as in-house staffing to update inventories and handle inquiries. A management company also hosts the Cadillac site.
At this point, customers do not complete a sale online, although they can come close by choosing a vehicle, getting credit approval and signing up for a test drive.
'People still want to have the experience of driving the car to see if it is a physical fit,' Kimmel says. 'Touching and feeling the car is important.'
Every dealer should consider having a Web site, she says.
'E-commerce is such a big business that it's important to have your own Web site,' she adds.
'I believe e-commerce as it evolves will have more impact on our business. I hope we do not get to the point where there is no interaction between the salesperson and the customer. Interaction is important, but the way we do business is changing dramatically. You have to do what the consumer wants.'