Monday, November 23, 2009


The title of this piece comes from a quote attributed to the screenwriter William Goldman.  He was referring to the fact that, although the motion picture industry has been in existence for more than 90 years, no one in the movie business can accurately anticipate the public's taste or predict how well a picture will do in the theaters.  In the end, a picture's success or failure is to a great degree just luck.

Is that not true of all retail?  How many of us have held a big sale to which nobody came?  Our found ourselves in a momentary sales surge for which there was no ready explanation?

I think the reason dealership websites are such a conundrum, and therefore the reason we dealers devote great amounts of money to miracle diet aids, herbal healing balms, organic peyote powders, and 100% natural Phytoplankton tonics (I'm sorry, I meant SEO management vendors, 3rd party lead providers, talking website avatars and industry best practices seminars) is because, at core, we don't understand what we want our websites to do for us.  Or what they can do for us.  Or how to get them to do it.  And if that is not bad enough, deep down we fear that, even if we did know these answers, a lot of a website's success is just luck.

Nevertheless, I have been on the path of discovery these past couple of weeks and, while I believe there is no single prescription for building successful dealership websites, I believe one can isolate a formula that greatly improves one's chances for getting there. To each his own; however, my version is this:

1). Engaging Look & Feel (the subtext)
2). + Smart Functionality/Features (the delivery)
3). + Business Differentiators (why you stand out)
=   Successful Dealer Website!

Number 1 is the scariest component because you start with a blank page.  If the medium is the message, then the text and images you put on the screen are delivering an irreversible message about you and your store. Whether it is the message you think is being sent, or want to be sent, is a whole 'nuther matter.

Number 2 is where you display your Internet merchandizing savvy.  What does your site do that others don't?  Can you harness the technology of the web to deliver information in a way that creates a refreshingly original online shopping experience?

Number 3 is where you display your retail creativity.  Who are you?  How are you different from other stores?  Can you show it?  Say it?

For the sake of argument I think there are two distinct car shopping website types.

The first site type will allow you to buy online.  Right now.  I call that a "True eCommerce" website.  eBay Motors is the most obvious example of that type of site: you see a car, you want it, you buy it. Online.  The site will take your money.

Most car shopping sites, however, cannot and will not take your money, and are instead designed with a three-step goal in mind:
1). Cause Internet prospects to generate email inquiries (or better yet, place phone calls)
2). So the sales staff can get these prospects on the phone and make appointments
3). So that once in the store the sales staff can convert them into sales.

I call that a "Git 'Em In" website.  It doesn't want to sell you a car (not right now, anyway).  It wants you to come to the store.  As such, it is no different in intent than a newspaper ad, television commercial, radio spot or direct mail piece. Except that, being a website, it presents your inventory in something close to real time, plus it contains a few additional interactive features.

Few of us can or want to operate true eCommerce sites.  Most of us own “Git ‘Em In” sites that make us unhappy because they only advertise our goods and fail to make that important next step; creating commitment.

In her comment to my last essay Donna Ransdell (perhaps unwittingly) said it all when she made this declaration; "My favorite website?  - they provide a great informative shopping experience that converts."

Converts.  There's the key word. converts you into a person who just spent money, right then and there.  (And if you don’t or can’t, you’ve likely parked some item on your Wish List so you can easily come back to it and buy it later).  We all envy the or (or whatever) model and wish we could create websites that contain a strong call to action.  But the retail car industry is not yet ready for true ecommerce car dealer websites.  So how can a car dealer website convert?

I believe it can.

Since Donna was so kind to compliment my last essay I went to her website to see what it's all about. Donna's store is Patty Peck Honda.  To my mind this website is better than most car dealer sites I've seen:
1)  Bright, engaging color scheme.
2)  Readily available live chat.
3)  Easy to find inventory.
4)  Photos of the actual vehicles (new and used).
5)  Online credit app.
6)  An “About Us” page with photos of the staff and a clearly stated store mission.
7)  An online service scheduler.
8)  And more.

The site has a somewhat “homemade” look to it but, in her small market (Jackson, Mississippi) that may play OK.  I came away from my visit to Donna’s site feeling like I had found a friendly car dealer who will be folksy and pleasant to do business with.  And I’m sure in person they are all that.

Unfortunately, I did not feel a commitment to do business with them.  What was missing? Why did I not feel the call to action after visiting their site?

Let’s try another ADM member’s site:  Joe Pistell's Sun Auto Warehouse. This store is also located in a smaller market (Central New York State) and looks a bit homemade.  But, again, let's assume that that plays fine in their market area.

SAW's site has every feature seen on the Patty Peck Honda site except a robust "About Us" page. But it has some other things that put it way ahead of the pack IMHO.
9)   Video walk-arounds of select vehicles.
10) An Amazon-style “Wish List” (they call it My Garage) where prospects can “park” a car they are eyeing and come back to it later.
11) A “My Account” feature so prospects can register their name, address, phone # and email address, on the site.  (Now SAW has their permission to be contacted.  And SAW didn’t pay a 3rd party vendor to get it).
12) And my favorite: the ability for shoppers to sort vehicles by down payment + estimated payment.  What a great idea!  Is there anything that makes people feel that a coveted car is within their grasp better than that?

Then, all of the above is pushed over the top by SAW's corporate customer service policies;
13) Lifetime Car Washes,
14) Lifetime Inspections, and a
15) Free Birthday Oil Change.
Does it get any better?

After visiting I wanted to do business with Sun Auto Warehouse.  Today.  They clearly stood out against all the other dealers and dealer websites that I encountered on my Internet research this particular Sunday afternoon.

Look back at the 3 component website success formula described earlier:
1). Engaging Look & Feel
2). + Smart Functionality/Features
3). + Business Differentiators
= Successful Dealer Website!

Did the Sun Auto Warehouse site deliver on all three?  I think it did.  The bright and cheerful look and feel of the site, combined with the exceptionally friendly navigation and vehicle search features, combined with their unique after-the-sale customer service programs made a customer out of me.  As a result of my online visit to their site I converted into a person who has made a commitment to do business with Sun Auto Warehouse.

Does that mean you must agree?  Of course not. You might be reading this article right now and thinking "That guy's an ass. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

You are probably right.  Remember: Nobody Knows Anything.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It seems to me that, as a community of Internet Retail Car Sales professionals, we devote a lot of discussion to the success or failure of the online software tools and services that we employ.   However, very little is said about the success or failure of our dealer websites to successfully merchandize our products and services.

Yikes, was that a dry opening paragraph or what?  OK, let me phrase it another way.  I want to talk about the first thing prospective customers encounter when they seek to know us: the front end of our websites. The architecture, navigation, text content and graphic design. The part that does the selling.

I'll be blunt; I think (most) car dealer websites suck.

When confronted with something new, original, uncharted and undefined (and does that not describe the Internet ten year ago?) early adopters revel in it, stand in awe of it, and then let their imaginations soar as they discover its unexplored opportunities and potential.  Following this brief initial development period a second wave of people come onto the scene: those who find ways to harness this new and wonderful thing by putting it into identifiable boxes, categorizing it, defining it and setting recognizable parameters for it. This is a necessary second step for growth, unfortunately, it also has the unwanted aftereffect of pretty much snuffing out the newness and originality of the thing. Overnight, what was once amazing and new and unlimited becomes charted, prescribed and defined.  Conformity sets in.

I don't know when or where the playbook was written, but sometime in the past 10 years, the industry collectively agreed that car dealer websites must pretty much follow a look-alike and behave-alike formula. Why?  Who says a car dealer website has to look like A Car Dealer Website?

Any discussion of dealer websites' merchandising capabilities has to start with a discussion of the sites' pure functionality.  The medium may be the message, but this medium must also deliver the retail goods.

By now pretty much everyone agrees that the mechanical features and qualities below are can't-live-without items for a car dealer website.
1). Easy to find merchandise.
2). Photos of the actual merchandise for sale (not renderings)
3). Features and specifications of each car, including any options/upgrades particular to that vehicle.
4). Prominently displayed dealership department phone number(s) and email addresses.
5). Easy to find dealership hours and directions
6). Some type of posted price for each vehicle (MSRP, "Suggested price," "Internet price", whatever)

What else makes for a good dealer website?  IMHO the following additional items are also essential:
7). "Wish List" (car locator) feature
8). Live chat (for sales and service)
9). Online credit application
10). A panel or panels synched to the manufacturer's current month incentive programs. (New car dealers only, obviously).
11). Ability for customers to make service appointments online (and not just appointments for 2 weeks or more in the future - duh)
12). A robust "About Us" page.  (This one item could be an entire essay in itself.  See related Dealer Refresh story here:

Now that the agreed upon mechanical functions are in place we must turn our sights to the merchandizing aspects of the site. When people go to your site for the first time you've probably got 1, maybe 2 seconds at most to impact them with that all-important first impression.  What emotional messages does the site deliver?  What does it "say" about your store exclusive of the words on the page?  What kind of car shopping experience is your site promising to deliver when it first greets their eyes?

In that regard I'm going to add what I feel is the all-important 13th item to the above list:
13). Bright, friendly and attractive color scheme and graphics.

Hey, I never said this piece wasn't subjective.

Let's go shopping online.  What are you in the mood for?  Clothing?  Jewelry?  Household items?  Electronics?  Discounted merchandise?  OK, let's visit some sites. Try these for starters:,,,,,,,,

That's nine major retailers' websites.  What one thing did all these retail sites have in common? (Other than items 1 - 6 above).  Anybody?  OK, here's the answer: each site's page background color is white!  Nice, clean, bright, cheerful, optimistic, easy-on-the-eyes white.

Now let's go car shopping:, (my employer),, (sorry, Alex),
to name but five selected at random.

What one thing did all these retail sites have in common?  You got it: they are dark. Moribund. Somber. Some are almost funereal. Really gets you in an upbeat mood to go buy a car, eh?

Granted, not all dealership websites are dark and dreary like the examples above.  And some of the sites above have commendable layout and functionality.  And I know some of the younger guys in my office claim to prefer sites with dark color schemes.  (The Goth or heavy metal band influence?)  But it remains a basic principle of color psychology that extremely dark blues, grays and blacks suggest power, authority, humorlessness and conservatism.  While bright colors (whites and pastels) suggest happiness, optimism and relaxation.

When polled, most Americans admit that they love cars but dread going into a dealership to buy one.  As an industry we have a public image comparable to that of personal injury attorneys, bill collectors and Bernie Madoff cohorts.  So why do we publish dark, authoritative websites when our goal should be to cheerfully entice people into our stores?  I'm flummoxed.

My personal theory is that most dealership websites (those not provided or forced upon the dealer by the manufacturer) look the way they do because they personally please the eye of the dealership principles. Little thought is given to what message (apparent and subliminal, surface and subtext) the site delivers and whether the general public will respond to it!

Obviously, simply painting a website white or in a cheerful pastel does not alone make it a great site. But once you agree that upbeat, positive color schemes are essential to creating a great dealership website first impression, then we can examine how graphics, text and ease of navigation combine with color to deliver the total website message.

To be continued....