Using E-commerce Principles for Automotive Dealership Success

Even with new online competitors and changes to the in-person sales process, it’s abundantly clear that people still prefer to buy cars in person.

How can car dealerships utilize e-commerce principles to drive in-store growth?


Consumers researching their vehicle purchases online have the entire web at their fingertips. Be everywhere they are looking.

Inventory Availability

With inventory issues prevalent in 2022, it’s more important than ever to have realtime inventory updates on your site.

Virtual Offers

Make available every piece of information your buyer will need. This will keep your sales cycle short and increase volume potential.

Bypass Negotiations

Prepared, confident buyers purchase after fewer visits and with less haggling. Give buyers the tools needed to know what they can afford. 

Reduce Friction

In 2022, more buyers will be willing to shop online. Provide clear return and warranty policies to reduce friction for online purchases.

Are car buyers ready to shop online?

If we’re talking about a 100% online purchase process, the answer is generally No (although virtual platforms like Carvana have definitely become more popular over the past 5+ years). However, just because the majority of customers don’t feel comfortable buying a vehicle “sight unseen” doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to the many benefits that online shopping can provide.

Research indicates that car buyers generally want to complete more of their purchase steps online compared to the last time they bought a vehicle. 83% of respondents in one survey stated that online buying technology would help them “narrow down their vehicle choice and determine what is affordable” – which means that both the customer and the dealership save valuable time on the overall shopping process. Moreover, the convenience to the buyer of performing research and price-shopping online can hardly be overstated. 

The bottom line is that even though most people aren’t yet ready to buy their cars online, they still want the purchasing experience to include a digital component. So how can you give your customers what they want, and grow your brand in the process?

E-Commerce Principles That Will Drive Automotive Sales

1. Diversify your digital presence

In many cases, your target customers will visit several websites during the research phase of their buyer’s journey. Those sites may include generalized marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist, as well as more industry-specific platforms like or Joydrive. The point is, if you want to keep your dealership top of mind for consumers, you need to advertise across a broad spectrum of websites. You can rest assured that your competitors are doing so!


2. Keep your online inventory up-to-date and accurate

On average, a car buyer will spend approximately 9 hours researching their options online. It’s not hard to imagine the frustration that the individual would feel when, after hours of browsing auto sales websites, they finally find the perfect vehicle that will meet every one of their needs… only to discover that the dealership’s inventory is out of date, and the car has already been sold. Clearly, if you keep an online inventory of your vehicles, it’s imperative that you have a system in place to ensure its accuracy at all times. (And if you’re advertising on multiple platforms, this principle holds true for each platform you’re using.)


3. Provide customers with the tools they need to put together a “virtual offer”

This is the focus for many progressive dealerships around the country. Think about everything a prospective buyer would want to know before physically walking into your store. For example, a consumer would likely want to know:

  • The features of the vehicle in question
  • The vehicle’s purchase history, and its record of maintenance and repairs
  • The price of the car
  • Their expected monthly payment
  • Their required down payment

Apart from these fundamental pieces of information, many customers also want to interact with vehicle configuration tools (to determine which trims, exterior and interior colors, and add-ons they want), dynamic calendar tools to set up an appointment, and store locators (for franchised dealerships). In these and many other ways, you can make the online shopping process “customer-centric,” and impress your users with the seamlessness of their experience.


4. Help online customer bypass in-person negotiation

One of the biggest turn-offs for prospective car buyers is the in-person negotiation “ritual” between them and the salesperson on hand. Many customers find the whole process annoying, disingenuous, and awkward. Unless they’re a natural-born salesperson, no one wants to spend time haggling over price with a stranger. 

Here again, you can stand out from your industry peers by transitioning those unpleasant in-person negotiations into the more comfortable online world. For instance, you can incorporate configure-price quoting (CPQ) into your digital platforms. By doing so, customers can play around with the numbers on their own, and come up with a down payment and monthly rate that will suit their particular needs. Interestingly, one study found that 70% of shoppers expect automotive sales sites to offer users the ability to configure a payment.


5. Provide an attractive return policy for online sales

Finally, when targeting those consumers who do want to buy a car 100% online, consider implementing a reassuring, convenient return policy to make your offer more attractive. This is becoming standard practice for online retailers like Carvana (7-day return policy) and CarMax (30-day return policy). It’s an added layer of security that will make your customers more comfortable buying a vehicle they’ve never personally examined.

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