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The one dominant difference between AutoTrader.com and Cars.com is that AutoTrader.com tiers the listings and Cars.com does not. This distinction has grown over the years as AutoTrader.com gains penetration for its premium product and consumers search across a wider radius.
It is not accurate, in the strictest sense, to say that Cars.com is like being a Premium dealer for every brand, because there are no dealers getting left out. In a market where no dealers purchase the premium package, the Featured version of AutoTrader.com functions similarly to Cars.com. In markets where many dealers purchase the premium package, Cars.com is more similar to the Premium version of AutoTrader.com.
Metro markets tend to have a high concentration of premium dealers because of intense competition. In rural areas, most shoppers expand their search radius beyond the default setting, pushing more Premium dealers into these searches.
There are two ways to compare Cars.com and AutoTrader.com:
1. Cost per Contact
2. Cost per Vehicle Details Page (VDP)
Cost per Contact is ideal, but it is difficult and involves lots of assumptions. Is a chat worth as much as a phone call? What is an email worth? What are website transfers worth? Are printable ads and map views a reasonable estimator for walk-in traffic? How does one reconcile the completely different reporting methods of the two companies for these metrics? How much duplication is taking place? Whatever your answers are, they will change over time, as your store's operational performance improves faster in some areas than others.
Cost per VDP is accurate and easy to calculate. A VDP occurs when the shopper selects one of your vehicles to explore further. Few shoppers contact the store without looking at the details of the vehicle, so this is an excellent head-to-head measurement. How many VDPs convert into store contacts depends heavily on the merchandising of the vehicles, which should be from the same feed to either service. On Cars.com's Online Ad Reports, a VDP is titled "People Requesting Details On Your Vehicles." The same metric on AutoTrader.com's reporting tool is titled, "Detail pages viewed for your inventory."
Divide the Cost of the service by the number of VDPs delivered to get the Cost per VDP. This provides a very good comparison of Cars.com to the Featured version of AutoTrader.com. A Premium user on AutoTrader.com could run the same metric the same way to get the average cost per VDP from the service. But buying AutoTrader.com involves two questions: Should I buy the Featured version?, Should I upgrade to Premium? It is best to separate these out, as I pointed out last week.
Every upsell product on Cars.com or AutoTrader.com either creates more VDPs or improves the conversion of VDPs into contacts. If your rep can't show you how the product improves one of these two metrics and help you measure the Cost per VDP or Cost per Contact, then don't buy it until they can. For most dealers, these services provide excellent value, but results vary based on geography, inventory, pricing policy, and store operations. Don't guess at something as important as cost-effective store traffic.