LAS VEGAS – Most modern car buyers undergo two distinctly different shopping experiences, says dealer Ash Zaki, who thinks he has found a way to bridge the two.

The first experience is digital, where people go online to research car models, check out dealer inventory and seek answers to preliminary questions.

“It’s an early experience, but when they ultimately come to the dealership the process is different,” says Zaki, chief operating officer at Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco. “They are asking different questions.”

At the dealership, Zaki uses an iPad to help answer those queries, provide additional information on models and show videos on how particular automotive systems work.

“The iPad marries those two experiences,” Zaki says at the 2011 Finance and Insurance Management and Technology conference here. “We use the technology to make our lives easier and make our customers’ lives easier.”

Mercedes was the first auto maker to provide all 350 of its dealers with iPads to expedite selling cars and F&I products. BMW dealers now use computer tablets as well.

Other brands will follow, predicts Brian Reed of Intersection Technologies. “A lot of interacting with customers will be done on a computer tablet,” he says.

“They allow mobility throughout the dealership, rather than taking customer into an office or leaving them standing somewhere while you go retrieve a piece of information.”

After Mercedes Financial provided each of its dealerships with an iPad, many Mercedes stores bought more on their own, such as RBM of Atlanta.

“Now, all of our sales people have them,” Internet Manager Bethany Johnson tells WardsAuto at the DrivingSales Executive Summit here being presented with WardsAuto. “They are very effective with customers.”

Reed calls computer tablets the next personal computers, “with so many benefits.” But as with all new technology, it is wrong to assume everyone will know how to use them, he says.

Reed cites an example of what he disconcertingly discovered in the late 1990s when helping to launch a then-new, browser-based version of Mercedes-Benz Advantage, a package of F&I products and services.

One F&I manager appeared to struggle with the new system. “So we went to the dealership and said, ‘Show us what you are doing,’” Reed says. “He turned on his PC, turned his mouse upside down and used it like a rollerball.”

Seeing that, Reed and his colleagues realized basic training was in order.

Today, many dealers use multimedia technology, while others simply think it is cool, says Michael Kanzleither of Mercedes-Benz Financial. “We need to get from coolness to business by taking those technologies out of the box and using them.”

But Mercedes dealers became quick adapters after the captive-finance firm passed out the iPads, he says. “It is not a question of geography when it comes to use.”

Beyond the functionality, computer-tablet use at dealerships provides a positive image, Zaki says. “At the very least, it shows we are not behind the times.”

Dealers once spoke specifically to “Internet” customers, “but now they all are that,” says Reed, referring to car consumers’ online shopping habits.

Meanwhile, auto retailing inches closer to e-commerce with the use of digital, rather than paper, forms. “We’re making a lot of progress there,” Reed says.

Existing laws are something of an impediment, Zaki says, referring to legislators who say, “Yeah, but you need paperwork on file.”

Written contracts are a legal tradition, but times change, Reed says. When was the last time during a store sales transaction that “they put your credit card in a machine and mechanically pull a lever across it to create an imprint for you to sign?”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com