ORLANDO – Keeping up with a growing number of Internet leads is tough for AutoNation Inc., says Kevin Westfall, a senior vice president at the 232-store dealership chain, the nation’s largest.

“The volume of Internet leads has risen dramatically,” he says. “We’ve spent a lot of money to handle them all. We handle millions of e-leads a year.”

They come from all sorts of consumers of varying ages.

A current industry debate centers on whether it is wise for dealerships to maintain designated Internet departments or have the entire sales staff take e-leads. Westfall seems to side with the former proposition.

“There has to be a dedicated process to handle it,” he says. “It can be a long process, but the ultimate goal is to get them off line and on the phone so you can answer their specific questions.”

Internet-related vehicle sales tend to carry lower profit margins, Westfall says. If the same lead is sent to various dealerships, “people fight over them.”

The big issue is effectively handling the volume, he says at a recent American Financial Services Assn. conference here. “We’re trying to make it simpler and better, but it’s a big challenge.”

The Internet fundamentally has changed the way consumers shop for cars, says Forrest McConnell III, owner of McConnell Honda in Montgomery, AL.

“They don’t have to leave home to shop for cars,” he says. “Before, if you were shopping for used cars, you’d have to go to all the car lots. Not anymore.”

Consumers who do their homework online “are much smarter when they walk through the dealership door,” McConnell says. “The Internet has been good for consumers, and not just car consumers.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com