Forrest Heathcott loves online shopping.

Other people with more conventional buying habits may enjoy trips to malls, bookstores and local car dealerships.

Not Heathcott, president of the JM Family Enterprises Inc.’s JM&A Group that provides finance and insurance services to car dealers.

“I’m a master of online purchasing,” he says. “I only go to a mall if I have to.”

So when his RV-enthusiast parents wanted a new tow-ready vehicle, their son dutifully agreed to procure one for them.

First thing Heathcott did was to log on, thinking he could do almost everything online but take delivery of the vehicle. What he encountered disappointed him.

For all the hype about Web-enabled car buying, “I was shocked by how little you could do,” he says at the 2010 F&I Management and Technology conference here. “You can only go so far before you hit that wall.”

There are exceptions, but beyond offering product information, inventory listings, directions and hours on their websites, most dealers’ goal is to get shoppers offline, on the phone and into the dealership.

“You put in personal information, and the salesperson calls you,” Heathcott says. “I was disappointed with the metro dealerships I shopped at.”

Defenders of that mostly offline technique say it aids the sales process and allows a closer relationship with shoppers. Besides, they say, some important elements of a car deal, such as determining trade-in values, are best done in person.

But avid Internet users such as Heathcott say truncating the online car-shopping experience goes against modern-consumer trends.

“We’ve failed to make the car-buying process more consumer-engaging,” he says. “How far have we gone in 50 years? We have nicer buildings and better technology. But the dealership sales model hasn’t changed since the Model T.

“You walk in, there’s a bunch of desks and someone jumps up and tries to sell you something.”

Most Baby Boomers accept that out of familiarity, Heathcott says. “But the next batch of buyers looks nothing like Boomers. Generation Y is Internet savvy, smart-phone savvy” and resistant to traditional car-selling processes.

He offers these points for new-age car selling:

  • Lose the generation barrier. Dealers online should be more engaging and provide “total access” to information.
  • Make buying a fun, social online experience. “Buying a car is still a major purchase. Social media will make it easier for us. Forget content, think engagement; it trumps content every time.”
  • “Communicate and sell to them using their channels.
  • Virtual F&I is coming. “We must make it more consumer friendly to young buyers online and on smart phones.”
  • Put Web-enabled computers and touch-screen vehicle configurators on dealership sales floors for use by customers who do visit the dealership. If sales people, while consulting with customers, use computers, those shoppers should be able to see what’s on the screens. It builds trust.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com