Savvy Web sites drive buyers into auto showrooms

Sleek, easy to navigate Web sites are key to driving potential customers into auto showrooms, says a recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

The study by the marketing information services firm indicates potential car buyers who’ve had a satisfying online experience with a car maker’s Web site are more likely to book an appointment for a test drive.

“Simply put, online traffic has an impact on showroom traffic,” said Ryan Robinson, industry practice leader, automotive at J.D. Power. “Also, the more people you have on the floor, the greater your chances of making a sale.”

The value of a good online presence is apparent when you consider that about 60 per cent of shoppers who want to buy a new vehicle over the next 12 months have visited a manufacturer’s site.

Twice as many say they visit a manufacturer’s site, as compared to a third-party site, Robinson noted.

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JD Powers Canada recently polled more than 2,300 Canadians who intended to purchase a vehicle within a 12 month period.

Respondents were asked about their preferred brand, after which J.D. Powers referred them to those manufacturers’ Web sites. Twenty four auto brands were involved in the test.

Respondents rated their satisfaction with manufacturer sites on a scale from 100 to 1,000. Researchers noted which sites respondents found satisfying, and what auto brands they chose to book test drives with.

“The study showed the likelihood of doing a test drive improves as much as 22 per cent in the case of brands whose site scored between 900 and 1,000 index points,” Robinson said.

The five Web sites that scored the highest points overall were: Lexus (843); Mazada (825); Toyota (822); Suzuki (817) and Audi (808).

At the bottom 5 of the list were: Mitsubishi (777); GMC (775); Cadillac (766); Chrysler (760) and BMW (757).

While most respondents rated their Web experience between 700 and 900 index points (53 per cent), only 25 per cent rated it higher.

Robinson says this is an opportunity for manufacturers to differentiate themselves in the online space, to drive greater physical traffic to the showroom.

“It’s crucial to establish that bridge between the digital shopping experience and the desire to take the next step and visit the physical showroom.”  

A Canadian Web site usability expert echoes this view.

A company’s Web presence directly reflects the quality of its brand and, by extension, the firm’s product or service offerings, said Dominira Saul, director of user experience design at Akendi.

Akendi is an international design firm with offices in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Los Angeles.

But is it fair that consumers judge a company by the quality of their online presence?

“Probably not,” Saul said, “but the reality is it happens millions of times a day all over the world.”  

It’s never simple to create an outstanding Web experience for customers, because a range of variables are involved in creating a Web site, he noted. (For more on the issue of user experience read Saul’s blog, How are your user’s surfing?)

Recipe for a successful site

The following features in their Web sites helped several auto manufacturers boost online traffic and showroom attendance:  

Ease of navigation – Well laid out sites score high with consumers. Online users want to have easy access to features and information. People don’t like to drill down through layers of subject headings and pages.

A very popular site option is the “3-box layout”. It makes use of a permanent navigation bar at the top of the page that shows a few general sections that users can visit.

The middle section of the page could sport a “dynamic display.” This could be a rotating image of a car (probably the top of the line or most popular model). Parts of the machine could serve as navigational links or reveal outstanding features of the car when touched by a cursor.

“Data shown could relate to horse power, top speeds, or lease rates and rebates,” said Robinson.

The lower section of the page could include another row of permanent navigational buttons that provide a static link to less frequently searched sections.

Roll over menus revealing several navigational choices when simply touched by a cursor help reduce site clutter. This feature also cuts down the number of sections users need to click through.

Provide for browsing and comparison – The whole idea of using a Web site is to be able to browse and compare models without having to drive to the showroom and face the pressure from pushy salespeople.

Yet the J.D. Power survey revealed just 28 per cent of site visitors said they were unable to perform vehicle comparison on the Web sites. The survey also showed when vehicle comparison could not be made, overall Web satisfaction dropped to 759 from an average index score of 813 when comparison was possible.

Site visitors also wanted to be able to equip a vehicle online and then get a price quote on how much upgrades would add to the total cost of the vehicle.

Replace Flash with functionality –

Beautiful Web sites with sleek images and fancy videos may look great but consumers would rather have fast loading pages and useful applications.

Manufacturers need to strike a balance between Flash and functionality, according to the survey. Ultimately, buyers look for a site they can use, as opposed to one they can simply view.

Multi-tasking is the ticket – The site has to be relevant to the consumer. The survey shows online credit applications are no longer a novelty, but an expected option for online users.

Other options online customers want include:

– Scheduling a sales appointment (76 per cent);
– Completing a credit application (72 per cent);
– Requesting a price quote from dealer (66 per cent);
– Obtaining a brochure of a vehicle (58 per cent);
– Locating a vehicle at a dealership with an inventory locator tool (51 per cent);
– Access to local or independent dealer sites (38 per cent)
– Investigate discounts, sale offers or rebates (37 per cent)
– Use the search tool to help locate information (33 per cent)

Mobile Web access – Around 26 per cent of those aged 46 and below are looking for mobile Web functionality, according to Robinson.

“I think it will be increasingly important for manufacturers to develop sites specifically designed for the smaller smart phone screens,” he said.

As smart phones gain more features and functionality, he said, consumers will develop the habit of browsing for products on their handsets.

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