Some of Rich Weigand's best customers never set foot in his showroom. In fact, some of them don't even come into the Atlanta metropolitan area. And the number of people doing remote business with Global Imports BMW, the South's oldest BMW retailer, is growing.
Global's off-site customer base took off more than four years ago, when the dealership unveiled its Web site, www.atlantabmw.com. 'We didn't know how big it would be, but we knew we wanted to be there if it was,' recalls Scott Whitmire, Global's general manager.
Whitmire's intuition was right on target. With only Weigand, the marketing manager, handling the site and selling exclusively from it, Internet sales now account for almost 10 percent of the dealership's business.
The Internet 'is such an integral part of the business now that it's almost funny to look back and see that there was a lot of skepticism about it four years ago,' says Weigand. 'Ten percent is significant, and I'm sure it will continue to grow, though I don't ever see it dominating.
'A car is not a CD, a movie or a toy that you can buy without testing; most people want to see the colors in person. But the Internet is a tool for the customer and the dealership, and you've got to be successful at maximizing that.'
With customers ordering specific vehicles online and the dealership delivering them directly to the buyer, there's no reason to visit the showroom.
'I've sold cars to people I've never met, particularly in small towns where there aren't BMW dealers,' says Weigand. 'It's usually a doctor, a lawyer, a professional who can't take the time to drive up to Atlanta and make a traditional car purchase. Most of the time they know what they want, pick it out, and we deliver.
He adds: 'Upper-luxury-car buyers are more astute and better educated, and they don't want to go through the traditional haggling process. On the Internet, it's pretty much one-price, but we average the same gross with those customers as with the people who walk in the door. Online, we just get right to it.'
Global's Web address is included in all its print ads and is linked to the manufacturer's page, www.bmw.com. The dealership also has a cyberspace partner, Autobytel. The online buying service tracks leads for Weigand, who can quickly tally the number of visitors and sales that resulted from a Web site visit. In addition, Global's in-house database helps him track leads.
About 40 percent of the approximately 3,000 monthly visitors to atlantabmw.com are checking out new and used cars and motorcycles in the Virtual Showroom. Others are scheduling service appointments, ordering parts and reviewing lease options.
Special Internet deals attract a good bit of attention. And the site also gives visitors a sneak peek of new models well before they arrive in Atlanta. Weigand distributes inquires to the appropriate departments, and follows up any sales leads himself.
Weigand updates the page a few times a month, adding new lease specials and deleting outdated offers on used cars and demos.
Global spent about $6,000 to set up its site; e-mail service, high-speed Internet access and frequent updates are about $300 a month. That's money well spent by any dealer, Weigand believes.
'You've got to have a Web site,' he says. 'Most dealers are selling in the 3 to 5 percent range (from the Internet), but some are missing the boat entirely.'