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....

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