The dealership experience has a “dramatic influence on brand building and vehicle purchase” consideration, a recent study by Rochester, MI-based Foresight Research Inc. says.

According to the study, “2010: Automotive Marketing Return on Investment,” over 50% of new-car buyers surveyed reported the dealership experience as being “highly influential in the purchase process.”

That figure ranks dealership importance in the purchasing process higher than any other form of communication, including the Internet, says the study, which was conducted over the course of five years and is based on responses from actual car buyers.

“At a time when the dealership network is under increased pressure across the industry, this data clearly supports that no single aspect of the automotive sales and marketing spectrum is more influential than what happens inside the dealership,” Steve Bruyn, president of Foresight Research, says in a statement.

Dealers are particularly important to so-called “conquest buyers,” who report in the study their experience at the dealership provided their “first favorable opinion” of the brand they ultimately purchased.

“Many buyers visit the dealer early in the shopping process, not just at the end of the process,” Bruyn says. “So automotive marketers have a big opportunity to win new customers and build brand equity by offering attractive dealership environments.”

Sixty-seven percent of respondents say providing an “inviting, modern and well-organized” showroom is key to influencing the sale.

Brochure availability, financing options, accessorized vehicles and signage also are frequently mentioned as important reasons to buy from a particular dealership.

Of buyers who are highly influenced by the dealership experience, 90% say their salesperson was professional, 84% noted the sales person was knowledgeable and 66% thought the salesperson was trustworthy, the report indicates.

Ford Motor Co.’s Mercury and Lincoln brands were standouts in the study, with 42% of Mercury buyers and 38% of Lincoln buyers noting the dealership provided their first positive brand image during their purchase decision, nearly double the average of other brands.

“Customers are won at the showroom, and creating positive experiences is the job of every automotive marketer and dealer,” Bruyn says. “Our data offers a clear snapshot of how OEMs and dealers currently perform and can provide insight into developing a blueprint for improving purchase influence.”