Surviving and thriving in a changing economy requires more than hunkering down and waiting it out. To capitalize on the opportunities in today’s market and that automotive retail experts see in the months ahead, you’re better served by knuckling down and getting to work. To win the business for your store, look beyond the grim, final months of 2008. Focus instead on the factors you control: fully merchandising your listings to catch shoppers’ interest and doggedly sticking with prospects until they purchase. 

Just as it does in boom times, advertising online in a downturn connects you with the most in-market shoppers and delivers a lower per-sale cost. Almost 90 percent of car buyers research their next vehicle purchase online, and they rely on the internet to help them determine not only what and where to buy but also how much to pay. So while showroom traffic may be down, internet contacts are up. At Cars.com, for example, we’re seeing year-over-year growth in shopper activity in the first workweek of January

  • Site visits are up 19 percent from the same time last year.
  • Time spent per visit is up 8 percent since December and 12 percent from a year ago.
  • Searches are up 19 percent since December, and searches for new cars are up 16 percent from a year ago. 
  • Leads submitted to dealers are up 18 percent over December and up 8 percent from a year ago.

Let’s look at the tactics that can help you make the best of a slow economy and position yourself for even better results in the coming recovery. While we should be doing these things even in the best of times, today represents an opportunity to be more diligent and put these practices in place.

Inventory Matters Now More Than Ever

It may be stating the obvious, but you can only sell what customers want. Stocking sought-after cars helps you to quickly turn the vehicles on your lot, minimize aged inventory and maintain gross. If you need advice on what’s hot – and what’s not – consult market-based reports for your area. Your internet advertising partner should be able to provide these at no cost.

Enterprising dealers similarly leverage their virtual inventory when a vehicle turns out not to be a good fit for the customer and a good alternative isn’t in stock. Rather than turn away the deal, they turn to online auction sites (e.g., OPENLANE and Manheim). These companies feature a consumer portal you can present to the customer as an extension of your showroom to locate the options you need. Simply take a deposit and set an appointment for the prospect to drive the vehicle a few days later when it arrives.    

Merchandising Matters

In a third-party-led study conducted this summer, car buyers spoke to the significance online merchandising holds in their decision-making process. One-third of walk-in visitors who used Cars.com, for example, came to the dealership without first placing a call or sending an email. The information presented online motivated them to come into the store; among them, one half planned to drive home in a new vehicle. With that in mind, here are the areas you’ll need to ensure are up to par in your listings to drive more floor traffic from your online advertising.

  • Price competitively: While price isn’t buyers’ No. 1 priority, it plays an important role in their decision on what and where to purchase. To ensure your listings are competitively priced, consult market-based tools and mystery-shop your competitors. If the price is too low, prospects may think something is wrong with the car; too high, and they tend to believe they won’t get a fair deal. Exclude the price altogether, and shoppers probably won’t even look at the listing.
  • Picture more sales: Allow prospects to take a virtual test drive by including several high-quality pictures. These photos encourage shoppers to spend more time with your listings – strengthening your branding – and help them form an emotional attachment. The number of photos can vary with the vehicle. Eight to 12 pictures should suffice in most cases, but consider more for specialty and high-end vehicles. With new cars, resist the temptation to use stock images and offer at least one photo of the actual vehicle. Doing so sets you apart from many of your competitors and assures prospects that you have the car in inventory.
  • Tell more to sell more: Effective sell copy should not simply mimic the information in the VIN exploder. Instead use it to describe for customers the ownership they can expect (e.g., “top-down fun in the summer” or “ready to work hard and play hard”), and you’ll likely help them take next step toward a purchase rather than clicking over to a competitor.
  • Turbocharge your listings: Offer shoppers valuable peace of mind by capitalizing on manufacturer certification programs and third-party vehicle history reports. Being able to offer an extended factory warranty with a vehicle or verify its one-owner status also can help you fetch a higher price against similar models that don’t offer these assurances.
  • Leverage specials: Just as it proves effective in your local newspaper, display advertising on the internet draws attention to your used- and new-car listings. When customers look for deals or too-good-to-resist financing and leasing options, show them you have the deal they want.

Process Matters

When working with in-market shoppers, the road to a sale begins with the steps you’ve outlined to guide them through the purchase process. Your ability to consistently follow this process and provide car buyers with the information they need – when they request it – may ultimately prove as important to whether you win the deal as the vehicle itself. Here are some points to consider.

  • Leverage email to win the sale: When communicating with car buyers via email, be sure to answer their questions and look for opportunities to keep the conversation going. As you provide the requested information, continue to both sell the appointment and qualify the shopper by opening your inventory. Respond quickly to all inquiries, be courteous and promote the value of buying from your store. If you use templates, take a moment or two to personalize the message so it doesn’t seem canned. And remember: spelling, grammar and punctuation count. A car represents a significant investment for most shoppers, and car buyers prefer to work with professionals.
  • Leverage the phone to win the sale: As with email, how you handle phone interactions can make or break the deal. When speaking with car buyers, be prepared to speak knowledgably about your inventory and directly answer their questions. Pay attention to the details customers share so you can match them with the right vehicle, and remember to ask for the appointment. Develop word tracks – rather than phone scripts, which can sound robotic – to help keep you focused on the customer’s needs and ensure you hit the key points during your conversation.
  • Leverage chat to win the sale: Some shoppers don’t feel comfortable contacting you by phone or email to get additional details about a listing and verify the car is still available. With online chat, you provide a channel they perceive as safe and create a forum in which you can get their name and contact information. Remember to answer the prospect’s questions before making your own requests. Once you’ve built rapport with car buyers – typically after you’ve replied at least five times – they’ll be more willing to take the conversation offline and perhaps set an appointment.
  • Leverage a lead management system: As lead volume at your store increases, you’ll likely need an automated system to manage incoming inquiries and ensure that each one receives a quick, quality response. An effective LMS allows you to keep track of your prospects and prompts you to reach out to them at predetermined intervals. A recent J.D. Power and Associates report found that less than half of responding dealers use an LMS. Implementing one helps keep you on your toes and could provide you with a significant advantage in your market.
  • Stick with the shopper to win the sale: Not every customer who contacts you today about a vehicle you have in inventory will purchase today – or within the next 48 to 72 hours. In the current market, we’re seeing car buyers take a more methodical approach. Not only do they want to be as comfortable as possible in their personal economic situation, but they also want to be certain they’re buying the right car. Although fuel prices have dropped sharply since this summer, many shoppers are considering vehicles they previously would not have considered. Only by staying with them throughout their purchase process can you be there when they’ve made their decision.

While many of these techniques seem intuitive, their importance cannot be overstated. At many stores, they represent the critical process steps dealers acknowledge when business is good that they need to implement – if only they weren’t so busy selling cars. If nothing else, recognize the current slowdown for what it is: a temporary setback and an opportunity to focus on the fundamentals. The hard work you today not only helps you sell more cars tomorrow but it also puts you steps and leaps ahead of your competitors in the recovery. Until then, attitude matters. Build your store on rock-solid processes, particularly in the internet sales department, and be consistent and confident in your outreach to in-market shoppers. They will come.

Additional Resources

Looking for additional tips you can implement in your store today to drive more traffic with your online advertising and desk more deals with your internet sales processes? Check out Cars.com’s DealerCenter. Here, you can read previous editions of our DealerADvantage newsletter or listen to archived recordings of our DealerADvantage LIVE webinar series.


Capgemini, Cars Online 08/09

Cars.com Internal Reporting, January 2009

“Value of Third-Party Websites to Dealer Walk-In Traffic,” Synovate, 2008

J.D. Power and Associates Dealer Satisfaction with Online Buying Services, August 2008