Ask Cars.com

You know the power of photos to sell used and certified vehicles, yet how often do you use a manufacturer stock photo for your new cars? While a stock photo is better than no photo at all, a lot of the effectiveness is lost, especially when the listed vehicle’s color doesn’t match the photo. Cars.com product manager Nick Hummer and Cars.com director of dealer consulting and training Ralph Ebersole emphasize the value of going the extra mile to use actual photos, especially in the current economy.

How can actual photos of my new-car inventory boost my sales?

“Consumers want to see actual photos of the real vehicle, not the manufacturer’s stock photo” says Nick Hummer, product manager at Cars.com. “It’s tempting to use the stock photo because it’s cheap and convenient, but it’s not nearly as effective. The best thing to do is to take photographs of the actual vehicles. If you can’t do that, there are alternatives.”

One is to create your own photo library. Take a photo of each type of vehicle in each color and obvious trim level (e.g., a basic and a souped-up performance model) and store those photos in a separate folder on your network. When you have a listing for a red Ford F-150, for example, you can go to the library and use that photo rather than having to shoot the actual vehicle. This saves time and money while creating a better experience for the online shopper.

“With new vehicles, one red F-150 looks the same as the next,” says Ralph Ebersole, a trainer with Cars.com. “Unlike used vehicles, customers expect new ones to be clean and perfect, with low odometer readings. You just want to show that you have that vehicle type, in that color, on your lot, and give them a feel for its features.”

If you decide to shoot your own new-vehicle photos, the Cars.com experts have some suggestions on how to get a better return on your investment.

  1. Do it right away. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to shoot the photos. Ebersole says that as soon as the cars are cleaned up and ready to show on the lot, move them into the photo-staging area and take your photographs.
  2. Create a special photo staging area. While it’s tempting to pull the car into the lot right away and then shoot the photos, that’s really not a good idea. Having people, other vehicles or other large objects in the background is distracting and doesn’t show off the vehicle to its best advantage. Ideally, block off one of the service bays and use it to shoot the photos. The conditions are controlled, making the photos consistent. If you can’t do that, find a nice area outside, preferably under dealer signage – as long as the background is attractive. “One dealer I know has a beautiful tree on his lot,” says Hummer. “It makes for some great photos.” If you do decide to create a staging area in a service bay, creating a special background is helpful. First, of course, make sure it’s clean. Paint the floor and the walls a neutral color, perhaps trimmed with a color from your logo. Some dealers use semi-gloss paint to give it a little extra “pop.” Again, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it does need to be attractive.
  3. Watch the lighting. While you don’t have to buy special lights for an indoor staging area, you do want to make sure the vehicle is well lit. Incandescent lighting adds a little warmth to photos, especially on black, white and gray vehicles. If you’re shooting outside, watch for shadows and glare/sunbursts on the vehicle.
  4. Use a good-quality digital camera. “You don’t need to have a professional camera,” Hummer says, “but you don’t want to use your cell phone either. These days, a good-quality consumer camera on a tripod can yield some great photos.” He adds that a small photo size – roughly 20 kilobytes to 30 kilobytes – is recommended, although most online sites have a way of resizing larger photos while uploading them. “If all your shots are 4 megabytes, it can take a long time to upload them. Too large a photo also will have an impact on how quickly it loads for the consumer. No one wants to wait for your photo to appear, no matter how beautiful the shot. If it doesn’t load in three or four seconds, car buyers just move on to the next listing, which could be your competitors.”
  5. Establish a process for shooting photos. Make a list of the shots you want to take and follow the process every time. It definitely helps to have the lead photo of all new vehicles on an online page look similar – preferably a three-quarter shot from the passenger side. “In the industry we’re conditioned to think of taking the shot from the driver’s side,” says Ebersole. “But if you look at the way most online pages are constructed, the photos are on the left side of the screen. Shooting from the passenger side leads the eye into the listing instead of away.”
  6. Start small. Because of the mantra that more photos are better, many dealers convince themselves that photographing new vehicles is impractical. But it doesn’t have to be, says Hummer. He recommends that you start with one photograph of each vehicle type and build the library from there. With new cars, buyers mostly want to see that you have it on the lot. The exception is high-end or classic vehicles. “Those shoppers like to see more photos,” he says. “The sweet spot is nine photographs.”

Take the Extra Step 

Taking and uploading photos of new vehicles may seem like a lot of work, but with a little advanced planning, a good process in place and a little commitment, the addition of actual photos can boost your new-vehicle sales. In fact, new-vehicle listings with one or more actual photos generate an average of approximately 50 percent more email leads than new-car listings without photos.* Also, as a recent Cars.com study found, fully merchandising your inventory translates into dealership visits: 78 percent of walk-in car buyers who used Cars.com viewed multiple photos.**

* Cars.com Internal Reporting, December 2008

** Value of Third-Party Websites to Dealer Walk-In Traffic, Synovate 2008

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