Local auto dealerships continue personal service in an Internet age

Airborne drones launched by Amazon will never deliver a new car to a consumer’s front door, no matter how much online shopping they do.

The size of the package is not the issue.

Anyone borrowing ten grand or more for a new ride wants to kick the tires, lift the hood and take a test drive before they sign along the dotted line, even when they see the car online first.

That’s the story in Grand Junction, at least, according to local car dealers.

The Internet has not replaced knowledgeable, helpful sales people on Colorado car lots, they say.

This local view differs, however, from a national trend noted by the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 20.

“Say goodbye to the car salesman,” the Journal article said.

Journal sources contend Internet-driven sales are forcing dealerships to reduce overall sales staff, dedicate more staff to digital communications, eliminate commission-based compensation and sell cars based on no-haggle sticker prices.

National surveys appear to confirm the view.

Shopping online may boost sales overall. In Colorado, new car sales rose over the previous year by 15.5 percent in 2011, 21.9 percent in 2012 and 11.2 percent in 2013 thanks in part to the Internet, said Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Association.

Ninety-four percent of U.S. franchised new car and light truck dealers, for example, have websites, the majority of which are interactive, according to a National Automobile Dealers Association survey. Sixty-four percent of dealers with a website have completed a sale on the Internet, the survey said.

Another survey by AutoTrader.com, an online vehicle marketplace, found 34 percent of all monthly visitors to a dealer’s website visited a third-party site first.

With statistics like that, it won’t be long before sales staff lurking around car lots will become a thing of the past, according to the Journal.

Not so fast, say local dealers. The alchemy of selling cars remains the same as it ever was on the Western Slope. Sales people still have plenty to do with the transaction.

“In the majority of cases, (the Internet) makes it easier because they’ve really already done a lot of the homework,” said Ed Nielsen, Fuoco Motor Company general manager.

“I would liken it to: I can look at the picture of the steak on the menu, but I can’t taste it,” Nielsen said.

Sales people at Fuoco go through a process of asking the customer what features and options attracted them most during their research and then directing them to the vehicle that responds to those interests, he said.

“It really doesn’t change that process once they’re here,” Nielsen said.

Building a relationship with the customer is key to any sale, said Jacob Sessum, Ed Bozarth Chevrolet pre-owned sales manager. That’s why sales staff dress professionally and conduct themselves accordingly.

Time is money and most people don’t have enough of either to make a long road trip just to save a couple hundred dollars on the purchase of a car, Sessum said.

Those who make such trips often regret it because once they arrive, they discover the deal they thought they were getting has changed. Some may even feel obligated to buy a car they don’t really want on account of the miles they traveled to get there, he said.

“For a car purchase, regardless of what you saw online ... you still have to come in and drive it,” Sessum said. “At the end of the day, when the customer purchases a car, they still want to purchase it from a salesman.”

Bozarth continues to pay sales staff by commission. Internet sales have not changed the way business is conducted there, Sessum said.

Even so, the power relationship between those who sell off the lot and those who buy has shifted significantly in the last five years, thanks almost entirely to the Internet, Jackson said.

The playing field is leveled.

Consumers arrive armed with details about engine performance, safety ratings, standard amenities and sticker price. They already know competitor pricing and manufacturer discounts, the Journal noted.

As recently as 2008, prospective car buyers made nearly five visits to the dealership, on average, before making a purchase decision. Today, most sales are completed in fewer than two, Jackson said.

“Without a doubt, the customer is much more informed about the car than they used to be,” he said.

Sales people need not be the product expert customers once expected thanks to the Internet.

Because sales staff turnover is frequent, knowledgeable customers may actually shorten the learning curve for a newly hired salesman unfamiliar with a dealership’s inventory, Jackson said.


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