YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Even before car dealerships started shutting down in the spring because of health orders related to the coronavirus pandemic, the internet was playing an increasingly large role in driving sales.
Shoppers have long been able to browse car lots digitally or look at manufacturers’ websites to build their perfect car. But now, a dealership that can’t take advantage of its digital presence is all but dead in the car lot.
“We used to get something like 5.8 customers [per day] through the door. Now, we’re about 1.2,” says Barry Gonis, general manager at Spitzer Chevrolet in North Jackson.
To convert people browsing online, dealerships have to employ marketing techniques that may seem more in line with consumer retailers rather than a business selling products that range from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.
“Right now, Google’s algorithm is rewarding websites who consistently upload fresh content to their sites,” says Jim Conlin, new-car sales manager at Greenwood Chevrolet in Austintown. “So we’ve added a new blog site to offer people more information on the vehicles we sell, what we do in the dealership, car maintenance, and the automobile industry in general. We also create new landing pages with information on our most popular models,” and employ traditional search engine optimization methods.
At Spitzer, Gonis says that in addition to its online car lot, the dealership uses “pretty much everything” when it comes to secondary sites such as Cars.com, Autotrader and Cargurus. By using such sites, Spitzer is competing against other dealerships, whether they’re in Austintown or Arizona, which can drive prices down. Prices on the North Jackson dealership’s digital listings are controlled by the market, he says, so the days of haggling over price are gone.
“We’re nonnegotiable, so we have to be aggressive,” he says. “We don’t price cars to the individual, we price it to the market. … We’ve had a situation where customers are buying a car and signing the finance papers and their son checks the car on his phone and sees the price has changed. Our prices are set by the market and because it went down, they got a better deal.”
A few weeks ago, Gonis continues, a buyer flew in from California to pick up a used pickup, then drove it back home. Spitzer has also sold cars to drivers in Texas, Georgia, Utah and Nebraska.
“These cars go all over the place because of the internet,” Gonis says.
For local buyers, a digital presence also makes the shopping experience easier, Conlin says. Rather than driving from dealer to dealer, they can look at what’s available everywhere and arrive at their dealership of choice having done nearly everything but the paperwork.
“A big part of it is researching what we have available and what’s on the lot. But there’s still nothing like coming to the dealership, meeting in person and being able to ask questions,” he says. “You have to see the vehicle, make sure it fits you and that you like how it drives. Online is a big part of it; it just leads to getting that full experience.”
At the outset of the pandemic, automakers flooded the airwaves with advertisements for fully-online shopping, pitching buyers the ability to buy vehicles without being near another person. The automakers even promised delivery straight to buyers’ homes.
That process is still available, Gonis and Conlin say, but for most customers, it isn’t the preferred option.
“We can do it all online. We have it done all online. Do I see it a lot? Well, customers still like to come in. It’s almost like buying a pair of shoes: Do you want to buy without trying them on?” Gonis says. “It’s a one-percenter right now for us. People are doing most of their shopping online, even things like credit applications, but they still want to test drive the car.”
The digital shift has even affected how sales departments operate. Traditionally, says 35-year dealership veteran Gonis, salespeople would be assigned positions around the dealership to greet customers as they arrived. The most valuable – spot No. 1 – was on the lot, to get to customers almost as soon as they stepped out of their vehicles.
“Now, it’s spot No. 2 or 3: answering phones to take in internet leads,” he says. “That’s where you’re getting most of your appointments and most of your sales.”
At Greenwood, Conlin says a back-office department is tasked with handing internet leads over to the sales team.
“It’s becoming a bigger part of what we do,” he says. “We’re in a digital era. We use social media to drive traffic and try to engage people with our platform. … We can use those platforms to build relationships.”
Pictured: Buyers are able to complete the sales process – except a test drive – online.