But when it comes to selling cars online, the world’s second-largest dealer group according to the Ward’s Megadealer 100 has been conspicuously silent.

It has had some stores on the Ward’s e-Dealer 100 in recent years (8 on this year’s ranking), and despite selling 32,483 vehicles online in 2004 it was evident that UAG’s Internet strategy was still in its infant stages.

But for several months, the company has been ramping up its online strategy.

In 2003, UAG’s Internet sales made up 13% of the company’s overall sales. In 2004, that increased to 15%. This year, plans are to increase that to 20%.

Jordan Hyatt (left), Dan Chasins ramping up UAG’s Internet strategies.

“I don’t think we’re any different from other retailers in that the Internet just gets more important for us every month,” says Dan Chasins, UAG’s executive vice president for marketing.

In past years, UAG lacked a coherent approach to online sales. Its dealerships used a hodgepodge of website providers and lead management tools which created a discordant look and feel across the brand.

“Our stores were all over the map,” admits Jordan Hyatt, UAG’s Internet director.

Chasins, with Hyatt’s help, is changing that. UAG took a big step in February when it launched new corporate and dealership websites using a single platform.

It is part of a bigger strategy embarked on last June to migrate all of UAG’s dealerships to Reynolds & Reynolds Co.’s dealer management system. “It makes sense for us to have one provider,” says Chasins. “Being able to train on a common system helps with the portability of our managers.”

The company has a strong corporate team but at the same time gives its individual dealership general managers autonomy, especially in areas such as marketing.

“We do provide the dealerships with a certain structure and process,” Chasins says. “We have a framework for them to operate in.”

UAG does not dictate how an individual store’s Internet department is to be set up, only that it has an Internet manager.

Some dealerships are further along than others.

Many of UAG’s best-performing dealerships are in the Northeast. Hyatt, who was brought to corporate headquarters from the New York region, has been assigned to expanding the best practices of those stores to all of UAG’s 165 dealerships.

Moving all of the dealerships to a common website platform is important. “First, we wanted to upgrade our image online,” Chasins says. “And we would like our dealerships to have a fairly consistent image.”

UAG developed two basic templates for its dealerships – one for luxury stores and the other for bread-and-butter, high-volume locations.

Chasins describes the stores’ websites as “business-like.” They lack “bells and whistles” such as flash technology that often can clutter a website and detract from the goal of creating customers.

“We believe people appreciate the straight-forward approach,” says Chasins.

The sites include all of UAG’s inventory. When customers go online searching a specific dealership’s inventory, they see the inventory from all of UAG’s dealerships in that geographic area. “We want the website to create leads,” Chasins says.

UAG also makes sure its websites meet auto makers’ requirements. That’s no small task.

“We want to be the best representative of the manufacturers’ brands,” Chasins says. “The dealer has made the investment but has a responsibility as a franchisee.”

UAG Internet managers need not worry about the look and feel of the new websites. “We wanted to make it easy for the dealerships,” Hyatt says. “We want our dealerships thinking about managing their businesses, not designing their websites.”

Another change Hyatt is implementing is to focus the Internet departments to get the customer on the phone rather than communicating too much by e-mail. “Historically, we’ve had stores focused only on e-mails,” he says. “But best practices show that the customer is on the website for a reason, and that is to buy a car. Our chances of selling them increase on the phone.”

UAG requires its dealerships to respond to each lead with a live e-mail – not an automated response – within an hour. “They have to be grammatically correct and answer the customer’s questions with pertinent information,” says Hyatt.

Whether the dealership responds with price in the e-mail is up to the customers. “If the customer asks about price, then we respond with price, but make it clear there are options,” Chasins says. “Doing it that way helps create a reason to talk to them on the phone.”

The strategy is to engage customers online fast, then get them on the phone quickly to schedule appointments.

cbanks@primediabusiness.com