Dealers seemed shell-shocked by the variety of online programs. The question is: What should they do about it?
'It is overwhelming,' said Mark Rush, general manager of Ron Rush Lincoln-Mercury in Columbus, Ohio, and chairman of NADA's information technology committee.
From selling cars to ordering parts to finding sales leads, dot-coms were peddling a huge basket of services at the NADA convention.
Even if dealers are overwhelmed by the plethora of options, they are no longer afraid of the technology, said Frank Ursomarso Sr., president of Union Park Automotive Group in Wilmington, Del., and a member of the General Motors dealer advisory committee.
'The tone of this convention has changed from the past years,' he said. 'Dealers are not fearing the Internet as they were at previous conventions. Rather, they realize they have to be on the Internet but as a part of their entire marketing portfolio.'
Gary Klein of Liberty AutoCity in Libertyville, Ill., has been using the Internet as a selling tool for more than two years. He admits the number of dot-com companies and services can be intimidating, especially to computer novices.
He blames the industry, which he says has been slow to react to the Internet's rise. He heard a NADA representative at the convention admit that the trade group only 10 months ago realized the growing impact of the Internet on selling cars.
Coming to the technology party so late reflects a head-in-the-sand mentality that permeates an industry resistant to change.
'A lot of people in the industry act like they're 90-year-old men,' Klein said. 'They think everything is OK.' He said he sees the Internet as an opportunity for dealers to redefine the retail business and improve consumer perceptions of it.
The state of confusion about the Internet was spotlighted at a panel discussion about the future of automotive e-business at the convention. Senior executives from Priceline.com, Autoweb. com, Greenlight.com, carOrder. com and DriveOff.com outlined their business models.
When the moderator later asked the audience whether the services described seemed similar or different, they weren't sure. Most said different; some said similar. Many cast no vote at all.
Ray Ciccolo, president of Boston Volvo Village; Charles River Saab in Watertown, Mass.; Saab of Framingham, Mass.; and Honda Village in Boston, said he thinks dealers will adapt to the Internet the same way they have adjusted to the Customer Satisfaction Index and other changes that looked to be a big threat when they were new.
'The good dealers are going to learn, just the way they learned customer satisfaction or anything else,' he said. 'I've had other dealers tell me they don't need it (the Internet), they're not going to bother with it, and my reaction to that is, they don't have the people to do it, they don't have the systems, they aren't doing it because they're afraid of it.'