Meanwhile, as vehicle shoppers increasingly shop online, Miller said, Cars.com is introducing products to help dealers meet those consumers in the digital realm. In the third quarter, the company launched its Social Sales Drive tool, which provides an artificial intelligence-driven messaging service on Facebook that ostensibly helps dealers track leads from customers shopping Facebook Marketplace after hours. In a conference call discussing the company's third-quarter results, Vetter said retention rates were 70 percent better among franchised dealerships using Social Sales Drive than at stores not using the tool.
Cars.com also is testing a home delivery service that would allow dealers to deliver vehicles beyond their markets. It's expected to be rolled out next year.
The company's fastest-growing product area is its dealership website products, driven by its Dealer Inspire unit, which it acquired this year. The company added consumer review website DealerRater in 2016 when it was still a subsidiary of media company Tegna Inc.
Leveraging its name recognition and established national network is one way Cars.com aims to separate itself from other third-party vendors and help sell its services to dealers who otherwise may be trying to launch their own digital solutions.
"Many dealers out there are adding digital tools to their website, but the difference when you work with us is, we're going to provide national distribution and drive traffic directly into the dealer's website," Vetter said.
Among third-party vehicle-shopping sites, Cars.com comes in second among its peers, with revenue of $654 million for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, according to AIM Group. But the company's revenue growth rate — 4 percent for that period — lags two of its key competitors, the fast-growing CarGurus and TrueCar. Revenue for CarGurus rose 46 percent to $419 million during that period, while TrueCar revenue increased 10 percent to $346 million.
Cox Automotive's Autotrader and KBB units lead the segment with $975 million in combined revenue estimated for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, according to AIM. Although a comparison to 2017 was not available, that Autotrader/KBB revenue dipped from an estimated $1 billion in 2016, AIM said. The information will be released Tuesday in AIM's 2018-2019 Automotive Advertising Annual.