NEW YORK – An expanded use of the Internet can make car deals easier and more satisfying by better preparing consumers for their dealership visits, says Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader, an online automotive marketplace.

Most car buyers use the Internet for shopping and researching vehicles. “But there is a big disconnect between online and offline,” he says, citing necessities that typically remain undone until a customer is at the showroom.

 “The anatomy of a car deal is confusing and complex,” Perry says of the various elements that make up the standard “4-square worksheet.”

Those consist of appraising trade-in value, setting a down payment, arranging financing and negotiating a price. Traditionally, such things are done in person. But Perry foresees a time when they will be done online, or at least started there.

Ideally, he sees automotive websites offering upfront pricing that is less subject to prolonged negotiations; giving instant trade-in appraisals subject to verification once the dealer sees the car; and offering credit-application functions that provide a tentative monthly payment quote.

Such offerings currently are available online, but on a limited basis and often with poor results. For example, of AutoTrader’s 16 million monthly website visitors, 64,000 click to secure a credit application and 26,000 submit loan applications.

“But dealers leave 45% of those unopened,” Perry says at a National Automobile Dealers Assn./IHS conference in conjunction with the New York International Auto Show. “The current online financing process is not tied to the dealership process.”

He believes the time is coming, years out, when financing and other elements of a car deal are online activities.

“When those things happen, consumers are more prepared as they enter the showroom,” Perry says.

Most consumers say they like the overall car-buying process, but satisfaction levels fall off when they are polled on specific areas of negotiating prices, completing paperwork, applying for financing and getting a trade-in offer, he says.

Marketers succeed when they address and solve customer-satisfaction shortcomings.

New- and used-car buyers on average spend 19 and 18 hours during the car-shopping process, respectively, 60% of that time online, Perry says. “It’s an expensive purchase. It isn’t with many products that we spend so much time before pulling the trigger.”

Most of those online hours are spent at third-party websites, he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com