LAS VEGAS – Auto dealership Internet departments – once considered bold signs of new-age retailing – are becoming obsolete.

That’s the opinion of some automotive retail experts who question the benefit of maintaining a separate Internet department, typically staffed by only a few employees, when nearly nine of 10 customers are online shopping for cars.

“If you have two sales people in the Internet department, essentially you have 10% of your staff handling 90% of your customers,” Jared Hamilton, president of DrivingSales.com, says at his firm’s recent marketing conference here.

Internet customers are so mainstream now, “we need to stop making a distinction,” he says, challenging why “a minority of your staff should be trained to work with the majority of your customers.”

Instead, Hamilton and other marketing mavens urge dealerships to train all sales people to handle Internet customers, whether they are submitting online leads or seeking information through email or chat applications.

“Throw out the Internet department,” says Howard Polirer, AutoTrader.com’s director-industry relations. “Get the whole store involved with Internet customers.”

Dealers don’t have separate TV, radio and newspaper departments, he says. “So why have Internet departments?”

Many online shoppers don’t readily identify themselves as such when they ultimately visit a dealership, says Rafi Hamid, CEO of Automotive Consulting.

“Ninety percent of them came to the dealership because of the Internet, though they may not tell you that,” he says. “Forget about the Internet department. Make it the Internet store.”

Otherwise, it’s like running two different dealerships. Hamid recommends “Internet stores” cross-train sales personnel, clearly define job descriptions and measure results.

To flush out Internet customers and “get their guard down,” Polirer urges sales people greeting dealership in-person visitors to ask: “What car did you see online?” and “Where online did you see it?”

Despite the proliferation of online car shopping, “we still have sales people at stores not wanting to deal with Internet customers,” he says. “It’s a disconnect when people say, ‘I won’t take Internet customers, just the ones that walk through the door.’”

Even some Internet department staffers seem blase about handling online prospects. Many shoppers complain their emails go unanswered or sales people seem more interested in getting them offline and on the phone.

Those are common beefs, Polirer says. “How many times have you heard those complaints?”

Dealerships need a 21st century culture, but some good habits are timeless. Whether new-age or old-school, “the most successful sales people are the ones who know how to handle repeat business and referral business,” Polirer says.

One reason for tearing down the walls of the Internet department is that online and offline sales activities differ little, says Todd Smith, a former dealer who now heads ActiveEngage, a firm providing online chat services to dealerships.

When delving into vehicle availability, price, rebates or financing, “the online and brick-and-mortar processes are the same,” he says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com