But when it comes to buying a car, most still want to see the vehicle in the metal and take it for a test drive.
A survey conducted earlier this year by Autotrader, in association with AM, revealed that only 28% of people would buy a new car online without seeing it first. Instead, buyers see the web as a tool for choosing a model, comparing prices, and ultimately choosing where to buy that vehicle from.
Subsequently, it’s not enough for dealers merely to have a web presence. With competition from internet-based car retailers such as OneSwoop (now owned by Norwich Union) and Black Horse’s CarSelect, bricks and mortar dealers have to ensure their website reflects their business’ brand values and will attract potential buyers.
“Any dealer worth his salt has already made his own identity on the web. The market is huge and dealers can market themselves all over the country,” says Alan Pulham, franchise dealer director of the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI).
“The internet is very important and key in the customer market research process. Today’s customers are so well informed and the web allows them to source cars from different places.
Dealers have embraced the internet and many of them have very good websites. To be successful they need to market all the services they offer on their site and make them accessible and interactive.”
Website design is the first part of marketing your business online, but the actual usability of your site is now seen as even more crucial. Speed and convenience are the main reason for potential buyers to use the internet – 85% of people say it is a strong influence. It’s clear, therefore, that ease of use and navigation should be top of the list of requirements for any dealer who wants a successful site.
“When designing a website, the business should be thinking of its customers first. If a user is unable to view, navigate and find useful information from the business’s website, then it is a failure. By putting the user first, businesses are ensuring customer satisfaction,” says Catherine Ross, an internet usability consultant who has worked on websites for several high profile companies including lastminute.com, Financial Times and RBS.
“At the end of the day the purpose of a business’s website is to provide information or sell a product or service to the customer. By identifying the user’s requirements and designing and developing a website to match those requirements is what usability is all about.”
Several years ago it was the trend to have Flash only sites, which did little for those on a dial-up connection to the internet. Those sites tended to have a large number of design elements, graphics and redundant layouts, which actually provided little substance for the user.
This was because traditionally websites were designed by those with a graphic design background. Today however there are many developers that have taken on the role of website designer/developer in a bid to offer a greater range or resources and introduce a substance over style way of thinking. But what actually makes a good website?
“A website should provide the user with an intuitive experience. This can be measured objectively by, for example, the time taken to complete the order of a product. It can also be measured subjectively in terms of the user’s satisfaction in using the website,” says Ross.
“Some of the key areas that can ensure good usability come in the form of consistent and clearly labelled navigation. The architecture of a site, particularly those with a substantial amount of content, need a sound structure to the organisation of their content. A usable website should also comprise well-formed content, a good search facility and an appropriate use of images.”
But design is still a key factor – a potential customer is not going to be impressed merely by an easy to use site, if it has no design or aesthetic appeal. Any dealer looking to construct a new site needs to balance the two aspects.
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Sytner takes a fairly classic approach with a left-hand menu of recent news stories and links across a top menu to key areas of the site.
A quick access drop-down search option allows for a fast sift through the site’s functions rather than a separate link through to a site map, allowing for smooth and functional navigation.
Among site sections are personal finance, corporate finance, a special offers area and a tax calculator – all to be expected on a retailer website.
The site also has a personalised number plate search through www.regtransfers.co.uk – a quirky touch. Registering is not essential unless you want to sell a car online – allowing you to browse without restriction.
Drop down specific search engines making it easier for a user to find a used or new car or to search for a specific dealership.
Pendragon has opted for a simple homepage, with a single top menu linking different sections of the site.
Instead of a site map, a drop-down menu on the homepage allows navigation to specific parts of the site with ease. A dealer locator is available, allowing searches for Pendragon sites in the UK, the USA and Germany.
When we checked the news section, we noticed it had not been updated for over a month and didn’t offer an archive. There was also no sign of the recent news that Pendragon would be representing Cadillac and Corvette in the UK.
Annual reports are available to download as PDFs and a contact section will allow users to ask any questions or queries.
The overall layout is informative about Pendragon’s business, but with an abundance of grey and a lack of updates the site doesn’t truly reflect an AM100-topping dealer group.
This is one of the most eye-catching sites of any UK dealer group, to the point of underplaying its corporate logo in favour of a myriad of coloured menu boxes. It’s designed to attract the attention-span-of-a-fish-consumer. While it may look like Linda Barker has been let loose, the site never loses sight of its goal – to inform surfers of Looker’s products.
The left-hand menu provides the comprehensive list – from Cars & Vans and Motorcycles to Dealerships and Motability – but critical areas promote new and used car purchasing, special offers on finance and manufacturer specific deals. Helping to cement Lookers’ status as one of the leading lights in online retailing is the incorporation of customer testimonials – the simplest and most effective way of promoting a business.
One minor fault is a lack of Lookers’ news.
John R Weir
The internet can be a great equaliser – the size of companies in the lower echelons of the AM100 has no bearing on a dealer group’s ability to make its mark online. The John R Weir site is a case in point.
While it might only be at number 88 in our latest assessment, the company’s site has the appearance of a business leader, using subtle colours, clear branding, a discreet use of Flash and is designed for ease of use.
All the key elements to this Chrysler/Mercedes/ Smart business are represented in the lefthand menu: dealerships, used cars, history of the company, news and career opportunities. Some areas are more comprehensive than others.
On the negative side is the Latest News section. There is no news, according to John R Weir – hardly inspiring to potential customers.