Sidney Haider, Internet manager for the Galpin dealership group in North Hills, CA, set a goal in 2005 for the online department to sell 400 units a month, or 4,800 a year. He missed it by about 1,000 units.

Even so, with 3,782 units sold, the dealership is No. 5 on this year's Ward's e-Dealer 100 ranking. The fewer sales are attributed to the decline in market share by Ford Motor Co., Galpin's primary brand.

Coupled with Ford's declining market share, Haider says that Internet sales are becoming more competitive.

“More dealers are finally getting it,” he says. As more dealers fight for Internet leads, and with more customers coming online earlier in their buying process, closing ratios of Internet leads have dropped, he says.

He cites statistics from one provider: two years ago, closing ratios were 18%-20%, now they're at 12%-13%.

As a result, Haider says he is buying more leads from third-party providers to maintain a consistent level of sales.

Still, Galpin's brand name, along with owner Bert Boeckmann's community reputation, helps drive a lot of Internet traffic, Haider says. The Internet department creates so much business, Haider says he sends more than 50% of its customers to the showroom.

“There are times when floor traffic is slow, sales people are hanging out in my office looking to pick up some business,” he says.

A key part of Galpin's strategy moving forward is its website. The dealer group hired Izmo Cars to build and maintain a new website that debuted in February.

Haider calls the site a “marketing essential.” Already, lead count from the site is up and average time spent on the site is surpassing 13 minutes, up from less than a minute last year.

The main element of the site is a robust inventory engine that Galpin created with Izmo.

“It makes sense for us,” Haider says. “We have more than 4,000 vehicles in inventory. Within one or two clicks, customers can be searching our inventory, which is what they want.”

The dealership's phone number is on every page of the website. The phone leads created by the website, which are not included in the overall Internet sales numbers, go to Galpin's business development center.

Haider says he underestimated how much work goes into maintaining the site. He now is putting together a staff to help do that.

There have been some bugs with the launch. The site had 230 ad banners that legal counsel is requiring Haider to change to meet California's strict advertising codes.

Galpin will start search engine optimization in two months, “mainly to brand ourselves,” Haider says. First management wants to see how the site does on its own.

The future of the site is in customers' hands, Haider says. The company is looking at applications such as video and podcasting, mostly to provide ways to help the customer identify with Galpin.

Other applications such as video walk-around presentations will depend on whether customers start asking for it.

Galpin also is beginning to send out e-mail newsletters. “What a difference they make in driving walk-in traffic,” says Haider. The company creates them internally to avoid a cookie-cutter look.

Haider says he follows a lot of what the Herb Chambers dealerships in the Northeast U.S. do with their newsletters. “Brief and newsy,” Haider says.

It's apparently working. Unsubscribers are down to less than 1%.