The Burt Automotive Network, one of Colorado's busiest car companies, is one of the state's most aggressive in pursuing business on the Internet.
Internet sales in the last three months of 1999 were the best ever for the company. Of 2,000 to 2,200 sales a month, 280 to 300 came from the Internet.
'We've doubled Internet sales in the past eight months, after going to a consolidated sales force devoted strictly to prospective customers off the Internet,' says L.G. Chavez Jr., an executive vice president of the Denver-based company. The Internet sales force has been specially trained.
Burt.com has been in the cyber sales business since 1995.
The firm dates back to 1939, when Nate Burt and a staff of eight opened Burt Chevrolet on South Broadway in Denver.
'I was the only new-car salesman when I joined Burt in 1950,' says Burt Automotive President Lloyd Chavez Sr., who returned to Denver after Navy service in World War II and graduated from the University of Denver.
Chavez purchased a quarter interest in Burt's newly added Toyota operation in 1966 and became majority owner in 1982. He bought the last of the family's shares from Nate's son, Allen Burt, in 1987. In 1993, Chavez was honored as the top Hispanic businessman in the country.
Burt Automotive Network includes nine dealerships at six locations across the Denver metropolitan area. Additions in the past three months were a Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge-Jeep business in Castle Rock, 25 miles south of Denver, and a Lincoln-Mercury store previously owned by AutoNation Inc. in Aurora.
AN EDUCATED POPULATION
Among the reasons cited for the emergence of the Internet as a sales factor in Denver is that the city has one of the most highly educated populations in the country.
'Because it is such a high-tech center, Denver has more Internet savvy than much of the rest of the country,' Chavez Jr. says. 'Here, 70 percent of those who bought in 1999 at least shopped the Internet before buying. Nationally, that figure is around 30 to 40 percent.'
Burt has subscribed to a variety of online buying services.
Chavez Jr. says: 'We spend about 90 days with each buying service and compare quality of leads we get to those on our own Web site. We've used Autobytel and Autoweb and have just begun 90-day analysis with Cars.com and Carpoint.com.
'We were the first Autobytel. com dealer in the area, and our region was all of Colorado and Wyoming, western Nebraska and Kansas, northern New Mexico and eastern Utah. The distance was difficult, because the visitors had to come in to the dealership to see the cars, particularly the used vehicles.'
Burt no longer serves that large an area with any of its buying-services subscriptions.
Internet sales are handled as a separate dealership in the Burt network. The sales force reports to a single sales manager and a single general manager. Staff members know the cars and options, and they know all about the Internet. They also handle financing details.
Chavez Jr. says, 'There are prototypes of the salespeople of the future.' Some of them had no previous sales experience.
Burt is proud of its Web site, but admits to lots of experimentation to get to its advanced stage.
'Our first-, second- and third-generation sites were built from scratch, and were very costly, for we hired Web site development firms to do that,' Chavez Jr. says.
'We now have our own Webmaster designer, Dave Rumbold, and it is his job to keep it updated. We have a big inventory turnover, selling as many as 150 cars daily, so current inventory is a big part of the updating process. We update the site nightly.'
Burt measures the Internet traffic by 'discreet sessions' by registered users. That figure was 27,000 in November, and a little higher in December. It is seasonal; in the summer there are fewer Internet visits. Traffic has increased 2,000 to 3,000 visits a month in the fall and winter.
Chavez Jr. is a member of the General Motors e-commerce dealer council, which projects that in five years, the Internet will provide 30 to 75 percent of business to the dealerships.
He agrees with those figures, adding, 'I don't know how any dealership can afford not to have an Internet presence. The auto business is so competitive that not being on the Internet would be like dealing with one or more appendages tied behind your back.
'In five or 10 years, the way we operate on the Internet now will seem like horse and buggy days. It's going to be in every home.'