The surge in online car shopping underscores how important it is for dealers to market inventories on the Internet in a way that grabs shoppers' eyes.

“This means presenting that inventory with comprehensive, accurate and descriptively enticing text and multiple photographs — even streaming video,” says Mike Baker, president of AutoUpLinkUSA.

The goal is to give Internet shoppers “a virtual walk — around of the vehicle,” says Baker, whose firm helps dealers upload data to their own sites and others.

Cars.com, a third-party site to which AutoUpLinkUSA provides data feeds, recently upgraded its platform, giving dealers the ability to upload as many as 32 pictures per vehicle in its listings. Photo size has increased 15%.

Many forward-looking dealers recognize the need to market online, with the best virtual showroom possible.

American Service Center, a Mercedes-Benz store in Arlington, VA, reports up to 80% of its buyers found vehicles by first searching online classified advertising sites where the dealership markets its inventory.

“So it's essential that our inventory online is fresh, accurate and effectively displayed on all popular car-buying classified ad sites,” says Stewart Beloff, American Service Center's pre-owned sales manager.

Consumers' car-buying habits have changed radically in recent years, especially pre-owned vehicle shoppers'.

A J.D. Power and Associates survey indicates online shopping now outpaces newspaper advertising for originating car sales. The research firm credits the “competitive and convenient” nature of online sites that give shoppers descriptions, options, pictures and other information about an array of vehicles.

The survey says 80% of used-vehicle buyers now have Internet access, with more and more buyers age 60 years and older logging on, even though buyers under 35 are the key drivers of online vehicle shopping.

Autotrader.com reports online inventory listings with lots of vehicle photos generate 46% more inquiries than online ads with only one vehicle shot. Even one photo though is better than none; 350% better, according to Autotrader.

Adding video to online car ads grabs more attention, according to UnityWorks Media, a provider of online ad videos. It claims a four-times higher click-through rate.

Another element of powerful online vehicle listings is lots of information that fully describes the vehicle make and model, year, mileage and the like, plus (and dealers say this is important) details such as options, aftermarket add-ons, and a personalized comment from the dealership more fully describing a particular vehicle's condition and marketability.

Merchandisers know that if the consumer is to buy, the product must be on the shelf — or lot — and attractively displayed. It's the same when marketing your product on the virtual car lot.

So it is important to keep online inventories updated, rather than rile shoppers by having them check out vehicles that no longer are available for sale.