Much hustle gets a dealer’s new and used inventory online and ready to sell. The sizzle is the sale, but the hot coals that drive low-funnel leads — and thus shoppers — into the showroom, is online inventory maintenance.
The trendiest dealer website will be hollow and unproductive where these maintenance basics are neglected. This digital hustle starts with inventory maintenance boots on the lot and continues into the online world where web merchandising and marketing experts tweak a whole lot of data to make each vehicle attract shopper interest.
AutoUpLink Tech is an on-the-ground-on-the-lot service that prepares new inventory, new and used, for its transition to the dealer’s virtual showroom. Its teams, equipped with their 4G AutoUpLink Tech app on tablets, pull VIN data, print window sticker documents, take photos and videos and then upload these streams of data to third-party listing services and the dealership website.
“This online inventory maintenance work has to be done first. It’s not the sexiest business, but if the dealer lacks good content and if this process breaks, all the money dealers spend on third-party sites,
is worthless,” said Chris Smith, AutoUpLink Tech’s director of growth.
For Jason Cohen, director of business development for DCH Paramus Honda of Paramus, New Jersey and DCH Honda of Nanuet in Nanuet, N.Y., once the groundwork maintenance is complete, his next maintenance need is digital. “Our website and the merchandising of our inventory and the marketing of the site is the most important tool we have,” he said.
“Customers looking at our VDPs (vehicle detail pages) are bottom-of-the-funnel shoppers; they’ve narrowed to their brand and make/model of choices and are on our site looking specifically at those vehicles, so good online merchandising of those cars helps convert leads into sales,” Cohen said.
Shane Marcum, vice president of Cross-Sell and Dealer Specialties, two Dominion companies, agrees.
“Many dealers take a do-it-yourself approach to this, but they’re probably not doing these things as well as they could be. When we take a look at their online inventory, we see the use of too many photos per car on their VDPs, when fewer are better,” Marcum said. “We also see many dealers using canned vehicle descriptions, which lack story-building. I tell dealers every used car has its own DNA and fingerprint, and that is what (the vehicle descriptions) have to say. Explain the DNA — that’s what makes used vehicles valuable.”
The transfer to digital marketing
Most digital companies that offer online web services (including inventory web page merchandising) also provide digital marketing campaigns to drive traffic to their clients’ online and physical showroom inventory.
They take over the next step in the online inventory maintenance cycle once the lot service providers like AutoUpLink Tech and Dealer Specialties have transferred their work online.
“We are getting data points every day from these providers, and the question is, what do we now do to make the information useful to the consumer,” said Cavan Robinson, director of product marketing for DealerFire, one of four DealerSocket product lines.
“This means identifying the values and features for each vehicle, beyond the VIN explosion, and then creating an interface easy for consumers to navigate. We also standardize and optimize the data, so if a customer’s looking for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the search turns up just those cars, not that model in all its powertrain variations,” Robinson said.
“Ultimately (what we do) is make sure the display attracts eyeballs and offer the customer sufficient information to feel comfortable with the vehicle and the dealership to submit a lead,” Robinson said.
A virtual road to the sale
Marcum said dealers might remember the virtual showroom sale has its own road to the sale.
“We stress to dealers their virtual showroom is their virtual handshake. The traditional road to the sale is still valid today, because it creates a value proposition in the vehicle and builds customer interest in a particular vehicle. The virtual handshake is when a shopper logs into that dealer website, even if that connection is through a third party,” Marcum said.
“When we speak to dealers this way, we can see their wheels turning. They’ve been caught up in SEO and clicks and often have forgotten they still need to build value into the vehicle,” Marcum said. “You can win that click, but must convert the click to a sale.
“What we do for dealers — and how we merchandise their inventory online — is, fundamentally, how that website is going to perform. How vehicles perform online live one layer lower than how you merchandise them through the virtual process,” Marcum said.
This means the goal is to sell more cars more profitably.
“We look for sales. We broke a record last month, and we’re on pace to break next month’s, too,” said Kyle McKinzie, a partner in Kruse Motors Auto Group in Marshall, Minn. “All the metrics — average time on site and conversion rates are gibberish to me until you consider the final question, “Does all this sell cars? Our record speaks for itself.”
“Our big focus is our GM store. When we started out with Dealer Teamwork merchandising tools to move old inventory, our annual turn went from 1.5 to seven,” McKinzie said.
He said the website marketing company provides “reverse ROI” details to help his groups perform against OEM stair-step goals. These details, McKinzie said, inform him of the number of clicks his website needs to be generating to drive the leads required to convert into the required sales numbers.
Eric Miltsch is co-founder and marketing director for Dealer Teamwork. “This topic of merchandising is very hot in all industries. Our solution is to market vehicles, and our job is to create sales opportunities; we do not create demand, but we make it easier for the dealer to make their marketing campaign found online.
“A website lacking relevant content and does not link that content to a landing page will cause campaign costs to skyrocket, with click costs to the dealer two to five times more than they need to be,” he said.
Marketing automation like Dealer Teamwork, at its core, Miltsch said, delivers three promises:
• Upload and update vehicle lease and loan payments to the website.
• Drive traffic to the proper landing pages on the website.
• Continuously push the same pricing messages to all other marketing channels the dealer uses, including organic search, emailing marketing, social marketing and third-party listing services.
Your welcome page
If a website has a virtual handshake, the online welcome page (or whatever you call it) is it. The layout and content of this page, usually labeled “Home Page,” should welcome viewers to step into the site’s road to the sale, said Daniel Bompadre, senior director of search for website provider fusionZONE Automotive.
Bompadre said fewer engagement apps on the welcome page work best for the customer experience.
“Having too many distractions can be devastating to how well the website performs,” Bompadre said. “Some dealers think they need to slam six different tools on their welcome page. That only makes the buying process more difficult for the consumer.”
He believes the website must be an extension of the consumer’s smartphone.
Dealer Teamwork’s Miltsch agrees. In his LinkedIn blog “9 Tips to Improve Your Landing Pages,” he noted that 54% of shoppers begin their search on a mobile device, and 33% of them will spend their entire online car-shopping time on a mobile device.
Online inventory maintenance includes ensuring VDPs have the optimum number of photos and types — stills, video and 360-degree videos, for examples. These experts said dealers want to overpopulate pages with images, but after a few dozen, viewer fatigue sets in.
For new-car merchandising, the trend is for customized photos of the actual cars presented for sale. Viewers don’t like stock photos, and some OEMs are becoming stringent that pictures for new cars on dealer online inventory pages show the exact vehicle, in the exact trim and exact color — not a representative photo.
Russ Daniels, senior manager of product marketing at HomeNet Automotive and vAuto, said recent margin compression challenges to dealer profitability have helped create demand for the use of actual new-car images — of your cars — over the traditional method of OEM-provided stock photos.
“The thinking was that basic merchandising was good enough. Well, we’re finding that’s not good enough. Dealers using actual photos of the cars they advertise are seeing significant increases in demands for those cars. They increase engagement in terms of vehicle detail pages,” Daniels said.
Citing consumer research from Cox Automotive, the parent of HomeNet and vAuto, Daniels noted that 92% of consumers surveyed said vehicle-specific photos were extremely or very important interactive content during the shopping process.
Dealers spend more than 30 hours per 100 vehicles manually filling out option and feature details for their online inventory, Cars.com noted in a January press release, “Cars.com Introduces Only Automatic Solution to Auto-Populate Options and Features Data for All Dealer Listings.”
“Dealers unable to dedicate that painstaking time are left with lost sales and profit due to incomplete and inaccurate listings that showcase undervalued vehicles to consumers. As a result, shoppers eliminate these vehicles from their consideration set or miss them completely because they are not coming up in would-be relevant searches,” the Cars.com release said.
Both DealerSocket and Cars.com recently announced new automation tools to relieve their customers of time-consuming VDP customization. Other companies interviewed for the story may offer similar products not brought up during the discussion.
• Cars.com’s new AutoCorrected, free for Cars.com customers, leverages AI technology to VIN decode and normalize a dealership’s data and detects merchandising errors on dealer listings, including trim, transmission and options. The result is an auto-population of inventory feeds with vehicle trim, spec and feature data to maximize the value of each listing to ensure they can appear in feature-specific searches, a company press release, Cars.com said in January press release.
According to this release, “Cars.com Introduces Only Automatic Solution to Auto-Populate Options and Features Data for All Dealer Listings,” a New York dealership cited that out of the more than 730 used units scanned on its lot, 37% had incorrect or missing options and features data listed. The errors cost the dealership approximately $66,750.
In looking at a group of 142 dealerships with approximately 17,500 total vehicles in their combined inventory, about 21% of the vehicles scanned from these dealerships had errors or omissions and total lost profits of more than $1.8 million. It was also found that correctly merchandised cars are forecasted to sell 14.3 days faster, the Cars.com release noted.
“Dealers are losing sales every day due to cars being mislabeled as poor deals on other third-party sites when in reality it’s often just bad data,” said Alex Vetter, chief executive officer of Cars.com, in the pre-NADA press release.
“Consumers do not understand the true value of vehicles because the listings are missing critical information needed to make informed decisions. Car shoppers often look for specific features, but when vehicles are not properly merchandised, they are omitted altogether from search results, and dealers are missing out on potential profits. We are here to help dealers tell the full story with the right data and remove Price-as-a-Point of friction in online sales,” Vetter said in the release.
Much dealer feedback and demand for more differentiated merchandising experiences for each vehicle has promoted online inventory marketing companies to improve how they merchandise VDLs.
According to a HomeNet survey, 83% of dealers believe they can increase margin or reduce days to sell by improving online merchandising; only 12% believe they’re doing enough to distinguish themselves from their competition.
In the study, Daniels said, “We did find that merchandising could help improve turn, help improve profitability and help dealers create a better customer experience online, yet only 12% thought their merchandising was highly differentiated.”
DealerSocket’s Robinson said website deliverables (reports) should include:
• Key Performance Indicators (KPI) — the traffic volume generated and type, whether from organic search, paid service or directly from the dealership website
• Inventory page use – Which inventory listings are receiving the most views and time on those pages. This information helps drive marketing decisions and provides insight for pricing.
• Conversion – Website effectiveness converting site visits to leads
• Bonus KPI – Regardless of the reported closing percentage, show rates and submitted leads, if those shoppers don’t appear at the dealership cars aren’t being sold.
Cohen, the DCH dealerships business development director, offered several listing optimizations tips his web marketing firm fusionZONE has helped implement for his websites:
• Put real photos of new cars as opposed to stock. “We increased all of our new-car page views when we did this.”
• Place video walkarounds and video test drives on VDPs. “Cox had found that 32% of new-car buyers watched the video of the car they were interested in before they came into the dealership.”
• Optimize for mobile. “Google now optimizes mobile over desktop, so my websites get 70% of their visitors via a mobile device, and this usage is increasing.”
• Have your pricing validated by a third party, whose pricing validation gives customers the confidence they’re getting a good deal.”
• Provide apps that enable visitors to run their finance or lease payments and down payment.
• Provide customer testimonials and ratings from social media and rating services.
• Enable viewable vehicle history reports for each listed vehicle.
• Use specific, descriptive vehicle descriptions: remaining warranty and special features
• For used cars, show the original price and current discount price, which increases perceived value.
• Limit the number of calls to action. Cohen likes to use three: “Get Our Best Price,” “Work Your Payments,” and “Send to Me by Text.”