Whether dealers are sceptical or confident about the long-term prospects for car sales on the internet, rising online activity means that it cannot be ignored.
A Cap survey showed that 80% of dealers are 'quite sure' that web-based competition is not going to destroy the traditional showroom. On the other hand, a significant 36% think they have lost a number of sales to dotcom competitors.
The inconsistency in attitudes revealed by the survey, mirrored by varying dealer approaches to their own websites, is perhaps rooted in the ambiguity of the internet. Few businesses have forgotten the revolution promised by the dotcom companies, many of which have gone from boom to bust in a short space of time.
The reasons behind the hesitant birth of online retailing lie in customers' buying habits.
Consumers like to be armed with a wide range of information and to research a purchase – particularly one as significant as a car. But they also want to touch and test drive that car. This need is greater in the used market, where the condition of cars varies enormously.
In addition, the size of the purchase means that they want the security of a name they can trust and somewhere to turn if it all goes wrong. And of course, they need somewhere to dispose of their current vehicle.
These buying habits suggest that a combination of bricks and clicks is needed. But the issue is determining how dominant each of these elements will be in the final purchase decision.
Some dealers are reporting that the forecourt is being used as a research facility, where cars are viewed and driven before being bought online. At present this tends to be the case with new cars where the risk over the condition of the delivered goods is lower.
However the 2000 used car market survey by BCA Europe/Sewells showed that 55% of web users would use the internet to shop for their next used car.
Dealers need to grasp the opportunities offered by the web while capitalising on what they do best – making the most of those aspects of their business which give competitive advantage against purely web-based companies.
But dealers should complement those aspects with online strategies, or risk losing out to other retailers who have embraced the internet and to dotcom specialists.
A website is not enough – it must work for the dealer like a member of the sales team. That means same-day responses to customer enquiries.