ANALYSIS: WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Auto dealers must change their image to adapt to e-commerce

Car dealers are not everybody's favorite people. Their image problems hover somewhere around those of lawyers. Actually, they probably rank below lawyers in the prestige stakes. After all, how many people leave school thinking, 'I want to be a car dealer.'

Car dealers are not everybody's favorite people. Their image problems hover somewhere around those of lawyers. Actually, they probably rank below lawyers in the prestige stakes. After all, how many people leave school thinking, 'I want to be a car dealer.'

Car dealers are not everybody's favorite people. Their image problems hover somewhere around those of lawyers. Actually, they probably rank below lawyers in the prestige stakes. After all, how many people leave school thinking, 'I want to be a car dealer.'

And it's not hard to understand why. The worst thing about the whole experience of buying a new vehicle is the people you have to deal with. Well, maybe not all of them. Just the ones who force you to play that stupid car-buying game of point scoring and one-upmanship.

It's all so time-consuming and energy-sapping. Let's face it, the traditional adversarial relationship between salesman and customer alienates a lot of buyers, especially women and many men who are not particularly into cars (yes, there are some). If ever there was a sector ripe for change, this is it.

So I'll freely admit that I was one of the people who used to think auto dealers would be chopped up and flushed away by the Internet. In fact, I hoped it. When the Web came along, it was like a prayer answered. At last, I thought, someone is going to come up with a better way to sell cars. A chance to find out what you need to know about any car you might be interested in without being patronized. You could look forward to one day driving off in your new car without wondering in the back of your mind whether you could have gotten a better deal if only you had had the energy to put up with another hour of bullshit. You could do your research, do a test drive, pay your money, take delivery, easy.

Except, of course, that it is not that simple. Dealers have, in Texas and elsewhere, successfully used the courts to see off attempts by the big manufacturers to cut them out of the chain. And some, like the dealer participants in FordDirect.com are making a convincing case to be a key part of the e-commerce sales chain.

FordDirect.com is a joint venture between the manufacturer and members of its dealer network.

For all its unpleasant aspects, car buying does need a human face, a place where people can go to kick the tires and do those test drives, and someone to yell at when those annoying little glitches start showing up three months into the warranty period.

But this truth, and the fact that they have won some victories in the courts, should not make car dealers complacent. With around half of all car purchases now influenced by the Web in some way, they have no room to be. Of course people still go to dealerships, but they now go armed with far more information than ever, and a much clearer idea of what they want and just how much they should be paying for it. The Web has raised people's expectations.

Using the Web to do things such as banking, shopping or helping to take you through some of the process of buying a car is supposed to be better than the old way.

This is an opportunity for auto dealers to reinvent themselves, to change their image and reach out to the many people for whom buying a car holds about as much attraction as a root canal job.

However, to do that they will need to change what happens when you enter a dealership as well as providing a lot of information and services online.



- Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution. He can be contacted at stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.





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