Commentary

The mighty Internet sure helps dealerships sell cars, but there’s an irony to it all.

That’s because as much as the Internet is ballyhooed as a great automotive marketing tool, dealers use it largely to prod people offline and into the dealership.

“The dealership website is to get people in the door,” says Todd Caputo, a New York dealer. “People aren’t going to buy a car over the computer.”

Well, some people might. But not many. AutoNation, the country’s biggest dealership chain, tried offering the utter convenience of the utter Internet transaction, a full monty resulting in a purchased car popping up in the buyer’s driveway.

Less than 1% of car consumers expressed even an interest in buying that way. A computer, yes. A car, no.

Instead, dealerships receiving an e-mail or Internet sales lead, will attempt to get the prospect on the phone. Then the salesperson will try to get the customer into the dealership for some good old-fashioned quality face time.

“The way you handle them on the phone determines if you get them in the door,” Caputo says at a recent National Remarketing Conference.

He also uses online chat to communicate with customers. But again, the essence of that online interaction basically is to get them offline and off to the races.

“The purpose of chat is to get the customer’s name and phone number, and ultimately get them in,” Caputo says.

It should be said that dealers aren’t trying to force customers to do something they don’t want to do. Automotive consumers like to shop and do research online. They like to buy at the dealership.

Some visionaries with active imaginations talk of a “virtual” dealership some day replacing the brick-and-mortar kind. But that sounds more like science fiction than modern auto retailing.