Why E-commerce and Tech Are Important to Dealers

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I once said dealerships should list a large portion of their P&A and unit inventory on their websites. Even if they don't want to compete on a national level, I said, they should at least give local customers an easier, faster way to shop (like during their lunch break at work). Then I found out how much labor this requires.

For example, an assistant manager at a Top 100 dealership tells me that he turns away more than half of his online P&A shoppers. His e-store is hosted by one of the powersports-specific website providers, which receive and translate data from suppliers. So he has whole catalogs on the site, but he can stock only so much. He says that the turnaround for special orders is about 12 days, and customers are rarely willing to wait.

The manager says he'll likely remove the electronic catalogs after he extracts from them certain high-volume items he stocks. His dealership software, of course, knows what's available, but it can't tell the website. An exciting piece of news from this year's Dealer Expo was that website provider 50 Below and ADP Lightspeed are working on a two-way integration in which stocking and pricing information can be uploaded to websites.

This partnership is exclusive, but I'd be surprised if it remains so. Too many dealers have sites built by others. Integrations in general are a theme of this month's special report on e-commerce and technology ("Web Providers Comparison Guide — Now Online"). Two companies that have excelled at it are V-SEPT and Ready2Ride, providers of customer relationship management software and aftermarket e-catalogs, respectively. Both are profiled.

Marketing is the main purpose of most dealership websites. A Texas dealer tells me that 92 percent of incoming phone calls come from customers using the number listed on his website. Only 3 percent use the phonebook's. Turn to "Build a Better Site (and Sell a T-Shirt to a Norwegian)" for a profile of another store that's an online expert: Beartooth Harley-Davidson.

Lately I've spoken with a few dealers on the cusp of diving into e-commerce: hiring the employees, dedicating the warehouse space, buying the hardware. One even admits that his website provider may not be able to keep up.

I wonder how many of these dealers will actually pull the trigger. Those who don't may want to consider drop-shipping. A former mail-order operator tells me that most of her inventory was virtual: She had Tucker Rocky drop-ship products for a handling fee of about $3 per item, a fee that approximated the costs of shipping materials and labor anyway. WPS offers a similar service, but I'm guessing that like most suppliers, neither it nor Tucker sees high-volume drop-shipping as a good idea. Parts Unlimited won't even consider it.

My point is, the industry needs to get creative, perhaps looking toward the car world (please excuse the oxymoron). As our "Selling Online" columnist Todd Shafer likes to point out, Tire Rack had the idea of signing up preferred installers for its website long before MotorcycleSuperStore.com debuted its program. (See our "InBox" section for a less favorable viewpoint.)

People often debate the extent to which dealers should operate as their auto counterparts. Technologically speaking, though, few people would argue that we shouldn't catch up. The Motorcycle Industry Council's PSP project (www.psp.mic.org) is just one such attempt. The industry's suppliers also need to start making product information more readily available. Two years ago, a major OEM told me that it still shared data by burning DVDs. Because the process was laborious, it offered the discs only to certain website providers. I hope its process has changed — or is at least on its way out!

Arlo Redwine Senior Editor aredwine@dealernews.com