In the early days of the Internet, it seemed as if car buying would someday become as simple as clicking a button and seeing a car in the driveway the next day, said Gardner Britt Jr., dealer principal at Ted Britt Automotive. However, when the Fairfax-based Ford dealership began tapping into the Internet as a way to sell cars 10 years ago, he said, they realized that people prefer to see their cars and negotiate over the price. Seeing that the all-online model of car buying did not work, he said, Ted Britt made some changes and developed what would become a winning online selling process. This month, Ted Britt was named 2005 Ford Internet Dealer of the Year by FordDirect, an online partnership between Ford Motor Company and Ford dealers.
"It's now a mixture of the traditional way to buy cars and the one where you never have to come into the dealership," said Gardner Britt Jr.
The customer uses the Internet to gather information about the car, and the buying takes place at the dealership.
This strategy forms Ted Britt's online marketing. According to Internet director Bryan Hopkins, the point of the Web site — accessible as tedbritt.com and tedbrittford.com — is to make the customer feel like they have already been in the dealership before they walk in the door. The Web site offers information on specials, new and used cars in stock, as well as financing options. Visitors can obtain a Carfax report on the car of their choice, and read reviews of the products, and see if the manufacturer has made any recalls. For live interaction, the Web site hosts chats with Ted Britt salespeople.
Also, said Hopkins, visitors to tedbritt.com can take a "virtual tour" of any car manufactured in 2003 or later. The tour includes 360-degree views of the car's exterior and interior, suspension and brake drawings, and safety features.
People have to get to the site in the first place, however, and that is where FordDirect comes in, providing information about car makes and models to visitors and then pointing them to dealers' Web sites. Formed in August 2000, FordDirect was a way to make the best use of the Internet's growing presence in sales. Leo Hillock, executive vice president of dealer relations and development for FordDirect, was a member of the Ford National Dealer Council at the time and remembers the concerns and questions surrounding the Internet's use as a sales tool.
"The number one concern was, 'What is going on with the Internet?'" said Hillock. Many non-dealer companies such as Autotrader and Carmax were trying to become direct Ford buyers and many people became worried that Ford would lose control of its brand online.
"Third parties were pretty much controlling what their brand was, and we wanted to keep Ford customers on Ford brand sites," said Hillock. "We were having trouble doing so because we didn't have that transaction piece." FordDirect became that piece, linking the Internet presence of Ford Motor Company and Ford dealers. Now, said Hillock, FordDirect accounts for over 10 percent of Ford division new car sales, and works with over 4,500 dealers. "Ford dealers control 80 percent of the voting stock in the company," he said. "They are truly partners."
FORDDIRECT IS the first and only joint venture of its kind in the industry, said Hillock. "We're a huge billboard on the Internet for Ford dealers," he said.
Ted Britt also draws customers in other ways, said Hopkins. "Tedbritt.com" is on everything, from TV commercials to license plate frames. Also, the dealership has a separate company make sure that Ted Britt is always at the top of the Web site list on search engines, he said.
Putting up a Web site has its own challenges, however. The customer is not just looking at one dealer online, said Joe Laney, Internet director at Crystal Ford and Isuzu in Silver Spring, Md.
"Customers are not just looking at you," said Laney. "You have to look flashy. You're up against competition not just five miles away but 30 miles away."
People do not look at a dealer's Web site as the final destination for their car purchase, Laney said. "The one thing I am amazed at is that when you put your best face forward and your best batch online, people look at that as their starting point," he said. "People are doing more research online than they did five years ago."
"Now, instead of strongest newspaper ad, you have to have the strongest Internet presentation," said Hopkins.
However, Ted Britt's method of sticking in customer's minds comes after they have seen the Web site. The first thing visitors to tedbritt.com see is a pop-up window advertising a $100 coupon off a purchase or a free fuel offer, with a form for visitors to fill out their information.
The information provided by this coupon helps the dealership follow up on its Internet leads, said Hopkins. A program called BuzzTrak will then send an automated e-mail follow-up to the customer. Twenty minutes later, the customer receives another e-mail with a price quote for the car he or she was looking at, as well as information on four similar cars, two new and two used.
The quick response is essential, said Hopkins, and is a large advantage over Ted Britt's competition. "The first response is always good, and you always want to catch customers while it is fresh on their mind," he said. "If you want to talk to someone, when they are fresh off the Web site they always want to talk to you."
After the dealer has established e-mail contact, said Hopkins, a group of salespeople specializing in Internet leads focus on talking to the customer over the phone.
"The best thing a coupon does is that it helps track who's been to the Internet," said Hopkins. "A lot of customers walk through the door and you don’t know it was an Internet customer."
Nearly a quarter of Ted Britt's car sales begin on the Internet, said Hopkins.
The Internet allows the customer to become much more informed about the process, said Gardner Britt Jr. This has made car buying easier and more pleasant for both the car dealer and the car buyer, he said.
"People still like to negotiate, but they come in with so much more information and so much more openness," said Gardner Britt Jr. "It makes it a lot easier. I don’t think car buying is as confrontational as in the past."
The award from FordDirect tells Hopkins that this process is working. "It shows our hard work and that we are doing something right," he said.
In the future, said Hopkins, Ted Britt will begin pursuing another popular Internet sales technique: using eBay. The dealership makes 20 or 30 car sales a month using the online auction site, he said, and will try to expand that in the future.
"We will accept [the award] gladly but continue to strive to do better and keep the process changing," said Gardner Britt Jr. "That’s how we got here and survived the last 45 years."