Modern dealerships must manage two separate showrooms — the physical one and the one online.

It's hard to say which is more important because they symbiotically depend so much on each other.

“The virtual showroom is where the action is,” says Howard Polirer, director-industry relations for AutoTrader.com. “If you handle that showroom wrong, customers won't end up in the real showroom.”

The wrongdoers are dealers who treat their websites as little more than electronic sales brochures, failing, among other things, to showcase inventory with detailed information about the cars, as well as photos and even videos.

So says Polierer and two other experts and former dealership denizens — Dale Pollak and David Kain — during a session entitled “Inventory: Your Secret Weapon!” at the Ward's Automotive Spring Training Conference in Tampa, FL.

They offer tips on transforming cyber-inventory into a marketing tool that drives buyers to that brick-and-mortar showroom. Treated right online and off, customers end up driving away in newly purchased vehicles.

“How vehicles are displayed on the Internet determines if people will come in,” says Pollak, a former dealer and founder of vAuto Inc., a firm that sells inventory-management software systems. “But in reality, a lot of used cars in a dealer's inventory don't make it to the Internet.”

Many of those that do make it nevertheless show up with incomplete descriptions and lack of high-quality photos, he says.

It's typical for a detail-oriented dealer to walk his or her car lot, making sure there are no wide display gaps and that vehicles are clean and purchase-ready, says Polirer, a former car salesman.

“But how often do we ‘walk’ that virtual inventory?” he says. His advice on how to do that: “Take the dealer glasses off, put on the customer glasses, look at your Internet inventory and ask yourself, ‘Does this work?’”

Online vehicle descriptions often read like terse liner ads in the newspaper classified section. Instead, they should contain enticing descriptions in addition to the standard information, such as price, Polirer says.

Inventory management software allows dealers to identify hot sellers in their markets, and stock accordingly, Pollak says.

The Internet makes it easier to sell used vehicles that are of brands different than that of a franchised dealership. “That search engine has no regard to franchise,” Pollak says. “It will display your Subaru Impreza along with all the other Imprezas, even though you may be a Ford dealer.”

Kain says he wouldn't operate a dealership without an inventory-management tool “to tell me what's in demand, rather than relying on a gut feeling.”

He says advice from his father, Jack Kain, a Ford dealer in Kentucky, included a tip to sell a used car “as if it were sitting in your driveway and you were the private owner.”

That selling technique includes providing a maintenance history, knowledge of the vehicle and personal touch.

“That's why online video of cars helps,” Kain says. “They should be personalized 3-minute walk-arounds. An added benefit of doing those is that they help the salesperson become a product expert.”

Such videos needn't — really shouldn't — be slick and packaged and resembling commercials, Polirer says. “Doing them with a $129 camcorder is fine,” he says. “This is the Utube generation.”

He adds: “There is a whole new generation of car buyers coming out, called ‘the Children of Us’ or ‘Echo Boomers’ and they are going to be shopping differently.”

Veteran dealership people, who developed their selling skills in the pre-Internet era, shouldn't feel intimidated by the new technology, Polirer says.

“It's still the car business, and we're still car guys,” he says. “Don't let technology dictate how we do business.”

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