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A couple of hours ago, I made note of a photo that Brian Pasch posted of empty shelves at his local grocery store.  That photo reminded me that I’d meant to cover a back-to- the-basics concept that I struggled with while doing some research last week.

First off, let me tell you that I LOVE CARS.  I have loved cars since I was able to grasp the concept of motoring.  I love how cars feel when you run your hand over their cool painted metal, I love how expensive leather interior feels – even on a hot day.  I love the musty oily odor of an old garage bay, how tools that fix cars feel in your hand, and the VAROOM of a car starting before its driven away.  My godmother collected old Jags.   My grandpa was a Mercedes Benz devotee.  My dad has had 8 Porsches and I learned to drive in a 1981 911 Targa, mint green with plaid seat inserts.

We always went to the car shows.  The Concourse d’Elegance out at Forest Grove, and the new car shows at the Coliseum and now the Convention Center.  We went to the races on Father’s Day.  I got into the retail side of the business in 1996, after dating a Chevy dealer, and haven’t looked back.

Now, I spent the majority of my automotive retail tenure overseeing Internet Sales, BDC operations, DMS, CRM, and everything that went along with data, data management, etc.  This particular post is about inventory, and posting it properly.  It is a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart – even though it was one of the most thankless tasks I was ever responsible for.

I started out taking photos of new Hondas with a regular old digital camera, and uploaded them by hand to probably 7 or 8 different sites.  It sucked.   Taking the photos took a lot of time.  Downloading them took time.  Uploading them properly WITH adequate descriptions took even more time.  I’ve been the Dealer Specialties route.  Gone in house with CDM, and seen scads of other systems/programs for getting a dealership’s inventory online.  I do have to say that I was happiest when I was able to delegate the responsibility, but it was still necessary to have a firm grasp on what was happening and how well it was being handled.

So last week, I was doing some inventory research.  I picked one of the aggregator sites that I know is pretty consistent and spent a day and a half looking at cars.  I wasn’t looking at how the vehicles were listed, but I found myself critiquing my findings anyway.  I was dismayed to find that only about 60% of the posts had “actual” photos, and that of those, not one was what I would call high resolution.  Over a day and a half, I decided that the “No Image” image was a real let down, and I started to feel pretty bad for the shoppers out there who are just wanting to have some cars to look at.

The last stats I have on inventory accuracy for a dealership under my control went from 65% inventory accuracy using an outside posting company to 93% accuracy using an in-house process.  We took at least 12 photos of every new piece of inventory (New and Used) and got those photos loaded into our distribution platform as soon as the piece had been stocked into the DMS.  I’m not advocating for one system over another, I’m just saying, that’s what worked better for us.

I know about all of the stats on conversion based on “real” photos vs. “stock” photos, and I’ve seen the difference in buyer behavior myself.  I don’t need a study or a pile of stats to tell me that people who are looking online want to find what they’re looking for.

Resolution is an issue.  Speed of upload can be a factor – I know, I get it.  Check your own photos.  Can you read the plate frame?  If not, maybe you could adjust the resolution settings or have your service company do that.  Looking at a fuzzy photo is better than no photo at all, but if the image were crisp, and the vehicle details more clear, doesn’t that logically appeal more to the viewer?

How about the lighting?  And the background?  I found a few stores that have created curtained photo bays for their inventory shoots and the cars are well lit and truly showcased.  A few others (here in the Pacific NW) were at least shooting their vehicles under a lighted carport. 

I don’t know how you feel about the Custom Image Overlays, but I think they’re a little distracting.  The only good thing about them, in my opinion, was that they did brand a vehicle to a particular dealership.  If this could be done with plate frames or inserts, or with a background or signage, I think it would be less distracting. 

Keep in mind that the people who are viewing your vehicles are likely going to be comparison shopping.  The inventory buyer is a much different cat than the credit buyer (I’m working primarily in sub-prime these days, but just had this conversation with a friend of mine who was shopping for a vehicle and drove to the dealership where he bought his car twenty minutes after he found it on their website). 

Make sure that your inventory is clean and shiny and ready for the photos shoot.  Develop a plan for how your inventory is to be shot so that your selection has continuity.  Decide how often your inventory needs to be updated (my opinion is that daily is best) and check your online inventory feeds to third party sites every once in a while to make sure that the machine you’ve created is working properly.

Before I penned this piece, I did a couple of Google searches and found articles regarding “how to” post automotive inventory going back to 2008.  The words I’ve written here are based on my experience and my opinion and recent findings, but I think it would be worth it for those looking to gain an edge to do some additional fact finding and opinion weighing. 

I guess my central point in bringing this subject back up for re-discussion in 2012 is that I think we’re still a car buying society that buys based on emotion, and what better means for appealing to that emotion than through images (or video, but I’ll let a friend of mine write that post)? 

Brian Pasch’s photo reminded me of the “empty shelves” I found last week when I was doing my research.  It is also very firmly etched in my mind as a reminder that so many of our automotive industry colleagues are being faced with seriously disastrous weather conditions.  I know I join many of you in sending out hearfelt prayers for everyone’s safety through the night.

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