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SIDEBAR: Auto-By-Tel allows customers to buy cars over the Internet

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Car sales via the Internet are exploding at Atamian Volkswagen-Honda in Tewksbury, Mass. -- so much so that the dealership has had to advertise for two more employees just to handle the requests.

The dealership holds the Boston territory for Auto-By-Tel, an Internet-based car and truck selling service that achieved national prominence by advertising on the Super Bowl.

"It's a VIP department," says Sherry Atamian, who oversees the dealership's Auto-By-Tel department as director of operations. "You have to have top-notch customer satisfaction."

At the Atamian dealership, Auto-By-Tel deliveries represent about 40 cars per month or about 20% of total sales, which average 150 to 200 monthly. The dealership receives about 200 Internet inquiries a month for Hondas and 65 for Volkswagens.

"We should be closing 65% of those people," Ms. Atamian said. The only thing limiting closing percentage is the lack of vehicles from the manufacturers, she said.

Ms. Atamian said Internet sales require a separate set of skills. Those who buy via the Internet also expect the salesperson to be familiar with the Internet and the World Wide Web, she said. Ms. Atamian and her manager, Christelle Bennett, both attended night classes to become better Net navigators.

Another difference: The regular members of the Atamian sales force will negotiate on price. Auto-By-Tel customers receive a special, non-negotiable Auto-By-Tel price.

Ms. Atamian never imagined herself working in an automobile dealership. Before coming to Atamian Volkswagen-Honda, the 28-year-old worked in the fixed income and bond departments at Fidelity Investments in Boston.

A graduate of Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., Ms. Atamian went to work at the dealership after meeting Terry Atamian, the general manager and the man she would marry.

Ms. Atamian and Ms. Bennett have run the department until now, but they can't handle all the requests they are receiving through Auto-By-Tel. That's why they are looking for more people.

The Atamian dealership saw the possibilities in Internet-based selling early in the game -- becoming the second dealer to sign up for the Auto-By-Tel program nationwide in 1995.

The Boston area is renowned for its high-tech industries and has many computer-literate car buyers. And, it doesn't hurt that Honda owners tend to use the Internet more than owners of almost any other make.

Ms. Atamian thrives on the high energy of the dealership and meeting new people every day. She says she also believes the auto industry should recruit more people from colleges and universities.

"As soon as I walked in the door, I fell in love with it," she said.

As more young people buy cars, they will purchase them via the Net, she said.

"Buyers 25 and under -- that will be their means of purchasing whatever they buy," she said. "We'll just keep staffing more and more people to handle these customers."

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