LAS VEGAS – Most auto shoppers who send email leads to dealerships dislike the way their messages are handled, according to a survey by AutoTrader.com, an online vehicle marketplace.

Only 37% of new-car shoppers who submitted leads were satisfied with the process. The satisfaction rate was higher for used-car shoppers: 49%.

Most satisfied are people who got a response within three hours. A response time of between three hours and a day left shoppers somewhat satisfied. Full dissatisfaction kicked in after a day with no reply.

“Dealers should establish a process for quickly responding to emails,” AutoTrader CEO Chip Perry says.

A personal reply within a day is best, he says. Better than nothing is an automated response saying, “We received your email; someone will contact you soon.”

The study indicates the top three reasons shoppers send dealerships emails are to: confirm a vehicle is still available (76%), get more information about a vehicle (57%) and ask if the posted price is flexible (53%).

Although responding quickly to emails is important, they’re not a primary channel for shopper-dealer communications, AutoTrader research indicates.

Up to 90% of consumers use the Internet to shop for cars but only a quarter of them send emails to dealerships, Perry says.

Those that don’t say they prefer dealing with sales people in person and want an immediate response.

Eighty percent of car shoppers who visited a dealership showed up without prior contact, according to an AutoTrader study in conjunction with Northwood University. Seventeen percent phoned beforehand. Only 2% emailed.

“Many people still crave a communication method that is more human,” says Dave Schoonover, a marketing manager for Kia Motors America Inc.

One reason so many car consumers skip emails to dealerships is that “so much information is available online about dealers and their inventories,” says Anna Zornosa, general manager of The Cobalt Group Inc.’s Dealix.com, which provides Internet leads to dealerships.

“People can click directly to website pages, fill out forms and inspect inventory,” she says at a J.D Power and Associates’ Internet conference here.

First-time car buyers are more likely to use email, she says. They also are “extremely interested” in independent opinions about cars, such as views expressed on third-party automotive Internet sites.

Modern technology speeds up car shopping, but essential elements remain unchanged, says Christian Nimsky, vice president of Kelley Blue Book’s kbb.com, a vehicle-value guide.

“People are asking, ‘What is my car worth as a trade-in? What car should I buy? What’s the complete transaction price?’” he says. “When you cut through all the technology, these are the questions they want answered.”

Perry agrees the basics count. At some point, “people want to see a live car on a dealer lot,” he says. “They want to see a car and a deal. When dealers fulfill that need, it moves the needle.”

Conversely, when information is inconsistent – such as online inventory listings for cars that already have been sold – “people tend to back off and think about contacting another dealer,” Nimsky says.

Most customers would prefer to avoid going from dealer to dealer, Schoonover says.

“Ideally, a customer has a good relationship with a dealer who treats him or her right,” he says. “No one wants to deal with five different dealers any more than you would want to go to five different Nordstrom’s to buy something.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com