LAS VEGAS – Dealers are “getting much smarter” in the way they use the Internet, says Mitch Golub, president of Cars.com, an online automotive marketplace.

“Dealers are investing money online to get great returns,” he says. “Any way you look at it, there’s nothing more cost effective than the Internet.”

He has seen much change in his 12 years as the head of Cars.com, which operates in conjunction with major U.S. newspapers’ ad listings.

“The greatest progress I’ve seen is the narrowing of the gap between what customers need and what dealers provide,” Golub says at a National Remarketing Conference here.

Few customers who go to dealerships say they used the Internet to shop and research vehicles beforehand.

“Customers don’t tell us they’ve been on the Internet,” says Tony Giorgione, digital director of the United Family Dealerships based in Las Vegas.

But those shoppers can leave tell-tale signs, notes Terry Hoisington, general manager of Henderson Chevrolet in Henderson, NV. “On the seat of their cars, we’ll see printouts from websites we use.”

“We assume that 90% of our customers are shopping online,” says Shawna Veronese, Internet sales director for Crevier BMW in Santa Ana, CA. “We want them to be on the Internet. We embrace that activity.”

The challenge is to get traditional floor sales people to welcome it, too, she adds.

But some conventional sales people feel threatened by the Internet because of the way certain dealerships set up their sales operations, says Hoisington.

“The guy on the floor doesn’t want to say that the customer with him came from the Internet for fear that someone from the Internet department will take the customer away from him,” he says.

In the late 1990s, many dealers feared the Internet would put them out of business. Now, dealers avail themselves of the depth and reach the Internet offers.

“We can’t afford not to be everywhere,” Veronese says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com