“I'm a cheap guy,” says Dennis Rushing, who still drives around in a 1972 VW Beetle.

So he passed over pricey and elaborate equipment when he set up an Internet department at a dealership where he worked as its first on-line sales manager.

“Look at it from the perspective of not spending a lot of money,” says Rushing, who as founder of DealerCat Inc. now teaches seminars on how to build a dealership Internet department on a shoestring. “You don't need a lot of high-tech garbage.”

Rushing served 21 years in the army, entered automotive retailing in 1993 and became Internet sales manager for McNamara Pontiac-Isuzu in Orlando, FL, in 1994.

Tracking and answering e-mails is the main purpose of the computer, he says. A laptop will suffice. Splurge a little on memory capacity.

Otherwise, get a brand name computer with 1.2 MHz processing speed, a 20-gig hard drive with floppy disc and CD-ROM, 128 megs of memory, a 56K modem and a decent printer.

Other tools of the trade should include a web-based cell phone or alpha pager hooked up for e-mails, a digital camera to photograph inventory for the website and a scanner to send documents.

Low-tech gear includes a three-hole punch and binders to store monthly leads, a calculator and a two-drawer file cabinet.

Next is setting up a website.

Rushing recommends paying $1,500-$2,000 for a professional web page designer to do it (plus $160-$250 a month for maintenance and changes). Don't look for a dirt-cheap deal here, he warns.

He says, “If Uncle Charlie has not built a dealership web site, pass up his offer.

“Keep it simple and easy to navigate. You've got problems if your home page takes longer than seven seconds to download. Elaborate graphics can kill you. Keep those to 16K and only a couple on the home page.”

It's essential to quickly answer e-mail inquiries. About 43% go unanswered at dealerships, which translates into a lot of lost sales opportunities, says Rushing.

Post inventory, but not necessarily prices. That's optional, he says.

“If you post prices, you'll get more inquiries,” he says. “The drawback is that can become a sale price you're locked into.”

Hook up with a few third-party lead providers, but spend wisely there.

“I was livid if I went over $2,500 on lead referrals a month,” recalls Rushing. “And keep your territory range as wide as possible. It was unacceptable if they couldn't give me a 75-mile radius.”

Putting it all together, Rushing personally sold and delivered over 3,300 vehicles in eight years as a one-man Internet department.

He averaged $200 per unit higher than the floor on new vehicles and $400 on used.

He uses a no-haggle approach, emphasizing that the dealership's pricing is fair and value-driven.

Still, some customers insist on negotiating.

“I tell them, ‘I've negotiated thousands of car deals, and you don't want to go up against me.’ One did and ended up going $500 over my price. I didn't charge him the extra $500. But it proved a point — and made a long-term customer.”

Dennis Rushing's tips for selling cars on the 'Net

  • Educate management. Make sure they know what you are doing and understand the Internet's role in modern marketing.
  • Have the general manager set prices and rules of engagement between the Internet sales staff and the showroom staff.
  • Keep your program simple.
  • There should be checks and balances, but empower the Internet sales manager to price and appraise.
  • Review the program monthly, quarterly.
  • Have a total “buy-in” of all managers.
  • Don't let someone who's never sold cars train your Internet sales staff.