The annual WardsAuto e-Dealer 100 is in its 12th year, and much has changed since the first one. Then again, some things haven’t.
I noted in a 2001 column that few people actually bought cars on the Internet. That holds true today. Customers then and now are reluctant to click their way to a $30,000 purchase, then go to the dealership to get the vehicle and see what it looks like for real.
But the number of people who use the Internet to research and shop for cars has just about hit the roof. In a 2001 survey, 27% of U.S. consumers said they went online as part of the car-shopping process. That was up from 13% the year before.
In retrospect, those numbers are underwhelming. Surveys say 80% to 85% of today’s car shoppers go online to do all sorts of things before ultimately buying.
Even that percentage range seems low to me. I would think it would be something like 99%. I share that opinion with Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com.
“You’re right,” he replies. “I can’t imagine what car consumer isn’t using the Internet.”
Edmunds is among many third-party automotive websites that consumers use and the industry has accepted. That wasn’t always the case. At the 2001 National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, some third-party website executives were on the defensive.
What were they defending themselves against? The NADA, for one thing. Autobytel’s Mark Lorimer acknowledged the trade organization’s “long and glorious history of protecting” dealers, but then added it was doing “a bizarre disservice for its members” by advising them to stay away from third-party websites.
NADA has backed off that position. Go to third-party sites such as Cars.com and Autotrader.com if you want to see their interconnection with auto dealers.
Such websites are prevalent because they so often are used by consumers who rely on the Internet for product information, dealer reviews, pricing, inventory and much more as part of the preliminary work of buying a car.
I wonder aloud at the office: What type of backwards person wouldn’t do that?
“My mother,” says colleague Drew Winter. Oops. Before I feel chagrined, he adds: “She is 85 years old and uses the Internet to read stories and send emails, but when it comes to buying a car, she does it the old way.
“She goes to the dealership and talks a lot to them. She also tells them, ‘Now don’t you think you are going to take advantage of me because I’m elderly.’”
Of course, it also helps to have in your company a son who is editor-in-chief of WardsAuto World. And if his mom isn’t online checking out cars, Drew is, on her behalf.
Then again, Jose Alonso, Internet director of Jenkins Auto Group in Florida, tells me of a recent 80-year-old customer who arrived armed with printouts of information he got from the Internet.
“And we had a 76-year-old guy slam us on a ratings website because a desk manager disputed a price he got online,” Alonso says.
Jared Hamilton, head of DrivingSales.com, offers a solution to that: Make sure online and offline prices match. Otherwise, expect customers of all ages to beef, often to the widespread social-media audience the Internet makes possible today.
People are nothing if not varied. Sometimes they are studies in contradictions. That includes dealers.
Jack Fitzgerald, 77, is a megadealer with 12 stores in three states. He is a 55-year veteran of auto retailing. If you want to know how he is doing, don’t send him an email. He won’t see it. Why? Because he disdains communicating that way. It doesn’t mean he is stuck in the past. His dealerships sure aren’t.
Fitzgerald has hired talented pros to run Fitzgerald Auto Malls’ online initiatives. People such as Bill McClure, the group’s director of Internet sales and marketing, know what they are doing.
Proof of that is the WardsAuto e-Dealer 100: Six of Fitzgerald’s dealerships are on the list this year.
In a 2011 interview, I asked Fitzgerald if the Internet would become the way or just another way to sell cars.
“It’s a pretty important way, and it has been for some time,” he said.