Your 24-Hour Storefront

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WEB-SAVVY DEALERS love the Internet because it brings them sales and convenience. Other dealers may have a Web site, but they hate the Internet in general because of the big discounters that steal their business. I'd like to address this latter group.

Hey, guys, you've got the home field advantage. Internet discounters are remote, faceless entities outside their own locations. You are (or should be) the hub of your powersports community. Connect with your customers, earn their loyalty, and they'll be willing to pay a little more.

Ironically, the Internet can help. For example, why not create MySpace and Facebook profiles for your store? These profiles will make their way onto the buddy lists of customers, and customers will use your buddy lists to connect with other customers. Soon virtual families will emerge whose meeting place in the real world is your dealership.

Also put some work into your "About Us" page. Include a detailed history of your store, as well as photos and short bios of yourself and staff. Update these pages regularly. If employees leave your real store, escort them out of your virtual one. Then highlight the bio of whoever replaces them.

Don't forget merchandising. No matter your square footage, let people shop your store 24 hours per day from home. Update daily what vehicles you have in stock. Parts and accessories are a bigger challenge, but if nothing else, link to the online catalogs of your major distributors and vendors. Invite visitors to call in or e-mail their orders for in-store pickup (offer shipping if you can). Constantly remind them you can special order anything not in stock.

And marketing — why waste money on direct-mail pieces when many of your customers, especially those ages 18 to 35, prefer e-mail? Go green already, at least with these people. Plus, your home page should act as a ubiquitous bulletin board listing upcoming rides and events.

Notice I've said nothing about selling on your site as the big boys do. Some of you don't have the resources for that. I understand. But I can't imagine any dealer not using third-party platforms like eBay to sell vehicles and old inventory. Linking to these listings on your site would be the next step.

And finally, some of you are indeed on the verge of opening your own Web store. You're investing in the equipment for picking, packing, shipping. You're taking a closer look at your carriers and your payment processor. And you're deciding on a Web site platform and what to do with it. All of which brings me to why I'm writing on this topic.

I'm back in the office after a trip to Chicago for the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition, the trade show for people who sell stuff on the Web. Attendance was a little north of 5,000, four times the number since the conference began four years ago.

Dealernews recognizes the significance of electronic commerce, so this was a great crash course. I've already digested my share of articles and white papers. I've even read a couple of books. (For some reason I gravitate toward the For Dummies series.) I'm glad to report that I'm starting to get it. At least in laymen terms.

Follow my lead. E-retailers have their own language, but the learning curve isn't as steep as you'd think. Start by going www.dealernews.com to read the articles written by Todd Shafer, our "Selling Online" columnist. Also visit www.internetretailer.com.

Sales are down, but spare your digital budget. The technology is much cheaper than it was only a couple of years ago. So if you were scared off then, it's time to take another look.

The same goes for those of you who've been selling online for years. Because the online world changes so quickly, it demands continual education. Consider the hundreds of developers that have sprouted up for Yahoo! stores. Until recently, for example, dealers with these stores couldn't offer customer accounts. Now they can.

Mentioned repeatedly at the conference was the value of networking. Find out how other dealers are doing it. With my newfound knowledge, I hope to do a better job at doing just that. And I'll be sharing what I learn.

Arlo Redwine Senior Editor aredwine@dealernews.com