Car dealerships have long held a mythic place in American popular culture, and for good reason: Car retailing is the biggest business in America, grossing almost one trillion dollars each year. Yet, it is still a fragmented, local business.

"While the auto industry is a huge national industry and there are big brands like Ford and GM and Toyota that people understand and know and the auto companies spend fortunes every year to cultivate those brands, the fact is that at the retail level, it's a local market," said consultant MaryAnn Keller.

Embracing the Internet

Brian Kendrick, CEO of Asbury Automotive Group, has a vision: make dealerships more customer friendly, but unlike other attempts at consolidating this vast business.

"When the Internet surfaced as a great tool for automotive retailing, Asbury was one of the first to embrace it, embrace it as a positive aspect for change in this industry," Kendrick said. "Many were calling for it to being the demise of retailing. We saw it as the great opportunity to empower and make us closer to our customer."

"We've had specific training at cyber colleges for a number of our people," said Michael Kearney, president of Crown Automotive Company. "We have ongoing dealership training. We have consultants come in. We have in-house people work with our sales people and our managers."

"The Internet, on the other hand, provides a wealth of information to the consumer, up front and in advance of the purchase, so they can discern the kind of car they want, the kind of price they're looking for, can help them focus on what's the right level to deal," Kendrick said.

"With Asbury, we've developed a really full functional Web site with links to Edmonds and Kelly Blue Book and manufacturer sites for information, as well as specials that we offer," said Jeff Wooley, CEO of Asbury Tampa. "Our complete inventories are available to the customer."

"The Internet incorporated into a fine operating company is really what works," Keller said. "Learning how to use the Internet in your daily operations as well as in the sales process is really going to create outstanding companies."

"We have terminals in all of our dealerships that are linked to the Internet," Kearney said. "We have of course our own Web site."

Customer Service

"You can also take it to the next iteration, which is keep in contact with the customer," Kendrick said. "When the customer comes in for service, you keep them apprised exactly all the way along about what's happening with their car, when the car can be picked up. Direct mail opportunities that used to exist in sort of a cumbersome way can now exist on an e-mail fashion."

"Some companies are going to learn how to harness this tool very effectively and they're going to be the companies of the future," Keller agreed.

"Customers are happier today I think overall with the automobile retailer than they've ever been," Kearney said.

About Asbury Automotive Group

Asbury Automotive Group, the third largest automotive retailer in the United States with pro forma revenue in excess of $4.5 billion, comprises eight regions consisting of approximately 90 dealerships representing 120 franchises located in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia and Texas.