Sonny Baird uses a cellular phone and a pager and often checks his e-mail messages. But he is interested in more than simply staying in touch: He is doing his job.
Baird is an Internet automobile sales specialist for Ken Garff Automotive Group in Salt Lake City, one of Utah's oldest dealership operations and one of many now turning to technology and the Internet to sell cars.
The group includes 17 Utah dealerships handling Audi, Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Jeep Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Plymouth, Porsche, Saab, Volkswagen and Volvo, plus a used-car superstore.
The late Kendall Day Garff, who operated a gas station near the auto group's current location in downtown Salt Lake City, founded the operation 68 years ago. Ken Garff began selling cars in addition to gas and, at his death in 1997, had built a string of auto dealerships into one of Utah's largest automotive enterprises.
'It is a different buying experience today,' Baird notes.
Auto browsers no longer have to come to a lot and kick tires. Instead, they can log on to the Ken Garff Internet Web page, check inventory to see if the car they want is on the lot and even apply for financing.
'The customers are happier, because they get information up front before they set foot on the lot,' Baird says.
'And, for the dealership, the profit is a little heftier per car' sold via the Internet, he says. For their part, Internet buyers also get a deal, with discounts of as much as $10,000 on a Jaguar and $2,500 or more on a Saab or Volvo, he adds.
Baird sells Jaguars, Volvos and Saabs. During one recent month, Internet sales accounted for about 17 percent of that dealership's retail sales. Internet deals for the automotive group range up to 10 percent of sales.
Baird says one of the critical factors is responding quickly to customers who shop via the Internet, usually within an hour. That is why he uses a pager, cellular phone and computer to answer queries.
'I can find a car for an Internet shopper, and we can close the deal not long after they walk through the dealership entrance,' Baird says. 'The goal is for them to spend 30 minutes here, maximum.' The customer deals with just one person during the sale.
'The Internet is another way for customers to contact our dealership,' says Greg Gleeson, general manager for the group's Jaguar, Saab and Volvo dealerships. 'With Internet sales, customers can get a lot of information on cars that interest them. And then we can get right down to it when they come in.'
COMMITMENT AND SAVVY
'Dealers can fall short if they just look at the negatives' of Internet sales, Gleeson says. 'It can be an easy car deal if the operation is set up properly. And dealers have to get on board.'
That includes using computer-savvy salespeople who can navigate the Internet. And, he says, it takes a commitment from management to the process.
The Ken Garff Automotive Group has done just that, says Vice President Rick Folkerson, who notes that the group has been involved with Internet sales since 1995. There are 12 Internet sales specialists in the auto group.
In addition, the auto group is a partner in AutoMall USA, a buying service based in Salt Lake City. AutoMall serves 1,500 car dealers nationwide, spokesman Patrick Patterson says.
'Some 2 percent of all auto sales are said to be completed on the Internet now,' he says. 'We expect 5 percent this year, and 15 percent to 20 percent the year after.'
Robert Garff, Garff Enterprises CEO and a son of Ken Garff, thinks the Internet is affecting the automobile business.
'The industry is in a consolidation mode; you get larger or get out,' he says, noting the Ken Garff Automotive Group recently purchased the former Rick Warner automobile operations in Salt Lake City and is a stockholder in Ford dealerships in Utah.
'And the Internet will add to or hasten this process,' Robert Garff says. 'It will also have an effect on the way this business runs.'