Merchandising Matters:

In working with independent stores to advertise their listings on Cars.com, we typically see these dealers playing a very active role in merchandising their inventory and promoting their stores. Compared to their franchise store counterparts, independent dealers are 61 percent more likely to include descriptive seller’s notes and 8 percent more likely to include competitive pricing with each vehicle. Paying attention to these key elements and actively merchandising inventory drives results, directly contributing to more contacts and more sales.

To learn more about how dealers who tell more sell more, Cars.com recently teamed up with NIADA past president Mike Cunningham to bring you tips from three top-performing independent dealers: Glenn Conklin, Matt Corey and Jim McMullin. In this month’s DealerADvantage LIVE webinar, these online merchandising masters discussed how their stores take full advantage of online opportunities by using multiple, high-quality pictures, competitive pricing and descriptive seller’s notes.

The following excerpts from that conversation outline how they use their stores’ websites and internet advertising to drive more ready-to-buy traffic to their listings and desk more deals.

General Merchandising: Stand Out Online

Webinar moderator Mike Cunningham got things started by asking our dealers how they stand out online. From pricing to pictures, here’s what they had to say:

Cunningham: What tactics are the most successful in merchandising your inventory online?

McMullin: We find that price is key. We are not the lowest priced, we’re not the highest priced. We try to position ourselves in the market somewhere in the upper average-priced range. We select our cars very carefully. We make sure they all have clean vehicle history reports. We’re looking for immaculate vehicles for a highly educated market and a very selective market.

Cunningham: What are the things you do to make your vehicles stand out?

McMullin: The descriptions really help, taking a little bit of poetic license�explaining how the breeze blows through your hair with an Audi A4 convertible, for example, or describing situations in the vehicle that make it more exciting really seems to work for us.

Corey: Having a good-looking car definitely helps -and including lots of pictures -and then also the price point, obviously. Internet buyers are more educated as far as searching and trying to find the right-priced vehicle, so that definitely is a key component. To make our vehicles stand out online, we go for the eyeball. It really comes down to finding the nicer-looking cars, the flashier cars.

Conklin: Pricing and multiple photos. We find that multiple photos lead to a lot fewer questions, and it’s a lot easier to sell people when they’ve already attached themselves to the vehicle before they’ve even talked to you. Pricing: We try to stay $1,000 to $1,500 under retail on every unit, and that seems to give us quite a response.

Cunningham: How do you use your online ad campaigns to position your dealership?

Conklin: We have a complete website: It shows our 40-year history, everybody you need to talk to at the dealership, maps and directions. We realize that the fewer questions customers must answer on their own, the easier they are to sell.

Corey: We definitely have an all-in-one website, so you can pretty much get all the information about who we are. Our credit applications are available. Pricing is available. Maps and so forth. By using Cars.com, we’re hopefully directing people back to our website.

McMullin: Like Glenn and Matt are saying: pictures. We always like to have the cars parked in front of our building so that when customers make it in the door they recognize us from the photos. Everything we have has to run at right around wholesale. Everybody in this market seems to be stuck on buying things at wholesale, so we’ve really got to pick our cars right. We really have to take high-quality pictures. We use a third-party company to do that for us, to place them online and to help us manage them, and I have a full-time internet manager that just focuses on descriptions. The cars are immaculate.

Cunningham: What do you think are the advantages of working with a third-party service provider?

McMullin: Uniformity, and everything is standardized. It’s an assembly-line process. All of our information goes up, that day, out to the internet. We get 16 to 32 pictures; they look the same every time. The cars are positioned the same way every time. There’s no chaos; it’s a very focused and easy approach.

The Price Is Right: Tips for Online Pricing

The panelists agreed: Effectively pricing vehicles is key to online success.

Cunningham: Jim, you said you include pricing as one of your main ways of getting consumer interest. Do you include a price with every listing?

McMullin: Every car; we’ve got to. The only exceptions are exotic cars: our Maseratis, our high-end Porsches, our specialty cars. Those are the cars that we will not put a price on�initially. We’ll run those cars for so many days before we actually put a price on them to clear that inventory out. Those cars seem to drive more traffic and interest; people that just want to come by and look at that Ferrari on the lot. That’s their dream car. They can’t necessarily get into one of those, but we can show them a BMW 5-Series that they’ve also seen on our site or with one of our online listing providers.

Cunningham: For those units that you do price, how do you determine that price? What do you use for research?

McMullin: We look at Cars.com and AutoTrader.com. We’re working within a 100-mile radius: We get a lot of business from Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia. Being centrally located, we can have a bigger internet market that’s like our local market. We try to buy the cars right, obviously, and then we try to position those cars somewhere right above average -just a little bit higher than the average price we’re finding online.

Cunningham: Do you offer a special, internet price that is different from the price that a walk-up customer would be quoted?

McMullin: Absolutely. Internet customers are some of the toughest customers; they’re usually over-educated about what they want and what they need. So we do have internet pricing. Usually, that price is a set price. It is lower than our list price.

Cunningham: Let me just say here: There are compliance issues with separate internet pricing in several states. You must be very careful. You should check with your state dealer’s association or with the national, if you have trouble getting an answer to that question, because there are states where you can have problems if you offer different pricing. Jim, how often do you update your online pricing?

McMullin: It’s a constant, almost daily thing. Sometimes we’ll see a jump in the market, say on the Audi A6, so we will actually, in some instances, we will raise our price online line just as often as will lower the price on a car. We have a bucket system: We get the car in, we have it for x-price, it doesn’t move, it goes to the next bucket, we drop it. We have the internet clearance price, and we just try to turn things within 30 days. We don’t anything sitting longer than 30 days.

Cunningham: Matt, as I understand it, you price every listing?

Corey: Yes. We don’t really have that much of an aging problem because we’re usually turning over our inventory every 30 days. We do put specials out there on the web, mainly for people that are out of state. When we have someone who walks on to the lot and they saw a different price, then we obviously honor that price.

Cunningham: How do you decide what the vehicle’s worth to the internet customer when you post it?

Corey: It’s based on market value. We usually try to shoot below retail price by using resources such as Kelley Blue Book.

Cunningham: Glenn, do you price every listing you’ve got on the internet?

Conklin: Yes, we do. We don’t have any difference between print and internet pricing. The same price that’s on the windshield is in print and on the internet. There’s no confusion. It helps our customers. Everything that we price usually starts out at the lower end of the pricing scale. Granted, some of our inventory has a little higher mileage, but we’re able to purchase at a point where we can almost always be in the top 5 percent, pricing wise. Then we don’t make any changes unless it’s an aging unit.

Cunningham: Now when you set your price, do you base it on your cost or the market value?

Conklin: On our cost versus the market value.

Cunningham: How often do you change your prices or update them?

Conklin: As we see a unit age a little bit, we’ll definitely induce more activity by lowering the price. Probably 60 days is what we’re looking at. At that point, we really want to move it.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Pictures are at the heart of online marketing, helping car shoppers to fall in love with a vehicle before ever stepping foot on your lot. In fact, using multiple photos of a vehicle can drive 31 percent more contacts. And 83 percent of dealers agree ads with multiple photos drive higher quality contacts. Our panel of merchandising experts agreed photos are key to their success.

Cunningham: How many pictures do you typically include with each vehicle?

Conklin: We use between 16 and 20, and we use a third-party that shoots our photos for us. We definitely stand at all four corners of the vehicle from the exterior and then directly from the front, directly from the back, all four seats, the instrument panel and any special options the vehicle may have�say a DVD player. We always take a close-up of the vehicle’s name and any identifying trim level. And then, of course, we take a picture of the tires to show the tread.

Cunningham: Jim, I know you have a higher-line inventory. How many pictures do you usually include?

McMullin: We’re at 31 pictures now; we’ve gone up a little bit, and we get every angle that we can possibly get. Our customers are professionals or in the military, or they work down in D.C., and they’re very busy folks, so they need to see as much as they can, right there at their desks, to get them to come in so we can consummate a deal. We get every conceivable angle. There’s nothing left to the imagination for our cars�except for the way they smell, and they come in for that.

Cunningham: We’ll get to that in five or six more years, probably. Do you include pictures of your store?

McMullin: Yes, beginning with the first image of the vehicle. Every vehicle is parked at an angle right in front of the building so you can see the store’s sign. If you’re driving by and you’ve seen us on the web, you immediately will recognize our building and know where you are, and it also helps our customers get to our location.

Cunningham: And your sales staff, is it pictured on the website?

McMullin: We’re currently overhauling our website, and we are putting up pictures of everybody, including the service folks.

Writing Copy That Sells Online Buyers

One of the most effective yet underutilized features of an online ad is the sell copy. The best dealerships take this opportunity to set their vehicle and their store apart from the competition with compelling copy that showcases unique features of the car and the philosophy of the dealership. Panelists shared their approach to copy that sells.

Cunningham: What process are you using for seller’s notes?

Conklin: For the most part, we just introduce the company: how long we’ve been here and everything that we do here�the financing, the service. We pretty much emulate franchise dealership in the services we offer so we make customers aware of that in the seller’s notes.

Corey: More than the car, the main thing that we try to stress is who we are and why you should buy a car from us. I think, more than anything, people want to buy a car from someone they trust, so we will put seller’s notes in to give them a brief description of the vehicle. We also have our batch tagline that we feel is important to sell.

Cunningham: So you also include an institutional-type ad in every listing?

Corey: Yes. It gives car buyers a sense of what we’re about.

McMullin: We have a staff of 12 writers that� (laughs). Actually, I said that to be funny, but we do a lot of creative writing, and we are looking to hire somebody for our internet side that has some creative writing experience. We find that if you sell the dream to car buyers, they can picture themselves in the vehicle. Or if you tell them something exciting about the vehicle, it captures their attention on that car, and it differentiates that car from the same, 10 other cars that they’re looking at that don’t have that little paragraph that helps them see it in their driveway or feel like they’re driving it. It sounds kind of crazy, but it works. For people searching on the internet, their attention span is maybe 12 seconds. They look at it, and they move on, so we want to hit them with as much stuff as tightly as possible in the 5 or 10 seconds that we have with them while they’re looking at the car so maybe they’ll stop, slow down. Just like when they’re on the lot, you’ve got to slow the customer down, and you do that with the writing.

Cunningham: As far as a call to action, how do you actually motivate customers to contact your dealership?

McMullin: We give them as much information on the car as we can, we include our phone number and invite them to contact us. There is no magic bullet. We keep a really good mix of cars, we know what’s popular and we know what’s rare. We keep a stable of 3- and 5-Series BMWs that everybody wants, and then we have very unique cars with the right color combinations that get people to call us because we have cars that other dealers don’t.

Driving Online Traffic with Specials and Incentives

Once you’ve hooked a buyer with the right price, multiple photos of the vehicle and a compelling vehicle description, it’s time to close the deal. Using special offers and online incentives can help you turn shoppers into buyers. Our panelists discuss how they incorporate special offers into their online marketing programs to get online buyers to take the plunge.

Cunningham: As far as specials go, how do you promote those on the internet?

Conklin: A lot of our vendors have specials pages, and we take advantage of those. They’re a good place to move aged inventory.

Cunningham: Do you use any kind of incentives, such as free oil changes or discount coupons?

Conklin: Every once in a while, we’ll throw in a free $20 gas card. That and free detailing and free oil changes; any incentive that will help.

McMullin: What we do sometimes�navigation systems are very popular, so we will place an ad with our different listing services, one at a time, offering a free navigation system with every car. We do that not so much to drive traffic but to see where our leads are coming from.

If you’re interested in learning more from these dealers, visit Cars.com’s DealerCenter for a complete recording of the June DealerADvantage LIVE webinar.

Additional Resources

More information about online advertising and internet sales processes is available at Cars.com’s DealerCenter. You can also access previous DealerADvantage LIVE webinars to learn more about how effectively merchandising your inventory helps you to sell more cars.

Panel Information

Moderator: Mike Cunningham
Payless Cars & Trucks, Owner, Tucson, Ariz.

Panelist: Glenn Conklin
Beach Blvd. Automotive, Internet Manager, Jacksonville, Fla.

Panelist: Matt Corey
Auto Line, Co-Owner and Internet Manager, Atlantic Beach, Fla.

Panelist: Jim McMullin
Fairfax Motors, General Sales Manager, Fairfax, Va.

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