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Clash of the Auto Websites

I recently overheard someone from a Detroit-based automotive consultancy giving a new hire a quick characterization of dealer-auto maker relations.

“They hate each other,” he told her.

Well, it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes, the two groups see eye to eye. Sometimes they don’t, especially when money is involved. Each side looks out for its own best interests, and those can coincide or collide, depending on the situation.

Take a subject as simple as websites. Auto makers and dealers each have their own versions. All are designed to get people to buy cars. But the similarities sometimes end there.

Auto maker websites cultivate the brand image. Dealer websites tend to skip that intangible and cut right to the nuts and bolts of car-selling: inventory selection, financing and drawing the customer to the dealership. They also focus on used cars and the service, things auto makers show little interest in.

Dealership and auto maker panelists got into a lively exchange about their respective websites at a J.D. Power and Associates conference a while back.

The discussion at times hit a “my-website-is-better-than-yours” tone, such as on the subject of lead conversions.

“Our site always outperforms the OEM websites,” says Alan Krutsch, director- marketing for Walser Automotive Group, a collection of dealerships in Minnesota.

“There is not much traffic going to your site; it’s going to our site,” Vincent Micciche, dealership chain Group 1 Automotive’s director-Web marketing tells DeLu Jackson, Subaru of America’s national manager-digital and direct marketing.

Jackson replies: “If you focus all your efforts on the family site, yeah, the conversion rate is better.”

Auto makers’ and dealers’ websites should achieve some level of consistency, says Jerry Winder, ecommerce director for the Larry H. Miller Management Co. with dealerships in seven states.

“If consumers land on a dealer site and it’s inconsistent with the manufacturer’s site, that’s a problem,” he says.

It should resemble a chain of evidence, says Mike DeCecco,’s director-industry relations. If an auto maker’s site mentions a 2.7% financing special and a dealer site doesn’t, “the chain is broken.”

Jackson says Subaru will strives for intramural elements of consistency, such as its logo appearing on all relevant websites, but then some dealers replace the logo with their own on their sites – hardly aiding the cause of integration.

“The consumer is going to get confused if we don’t clean this up,” Jackson says. Consumers don’t know the differences among auto maker, regional dealer association and individual dealer websites, “they just know what they are looking for and trying to find.”

But integration efforts are more internal in nature for a big dealership chain, such as Group 1 with 95 stores selling various brands.

Group 1 isn’t “trying to bash manufacturers,” Micciche says, but it just rolled out a new inward-focused slogan called “One company, one solution.”

The Walser dealership group’s Krutsch wants auto maker websites to create more passion for their products.

“That makes the job of selling easy for us,” he says. “It is more difficult at the retail level if the customer hasn’t fallen in love with a vehicle at the OEM level.”

The lingering question is how can auto maker and dealer websites co-exist and play to their respective strengths, says auto consultant Raynard Fenster.

“Right now, that’s an unknown,” he tells me. “They’ve got to get the sites right. There’s no need to fight.”

There's also this. Considerably more car shoppers visit third-party automotive websites anyway, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study.

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