Best Practices

A Camera, a Process and $288K to the Bottom Line

If not for a camera and a process, I wouldn’t be writing this article behind a desk inside a publically traded company.

eCarList’s founder, Len Critcher, sold over 6,000 cars online with a camera and two porters…oh, and some incredible software developed in-house to merchandise and distribute his vehicles to the web.

Chances are you have access to all of the above, and with the capability of apps and megapixels in the smartphones of today, dealers are running out of excuses as to why they are not taking ownership of what could arguably be considered the most important phase of marketing a vehicle – photography and merchandising.

Len’s famous rhetorical question to dealers, “does the Gap hire outside contractors to come in and fold their T-shirts?”, led us to conduct our own study.

In short, we studied a sample of franchise dealers who have an internal photography process vs. those who outsource it. The results showed an average profit increase of $288K based on decreased time-to-market and days-in-stock (not including the actual cost of your outsourced vendor).

We understand every dealer has their own set of circumstances, but for those that have the potential and the desire to merchandise more effectively, we also put together a quick-guide on how to setup a photo booth inside your dealership, courtesy of our in-house “film crew”.

Days in stock to time to market inventory photosoutsourced in-house key

Here are some findings from our study OR you can download our full study “eCarList Photography Study“.

In-house merchandising on average:

  • decreased time to market by 4.2 days
  • decreased days in stock by 10.7 days
  • increased average 90 Day Unit Sales by 23%
  • increased average 90 day profit by $72,000
  • increased annual profit by $288,000

Download “eCarlist Photography Guide

Are your vehicles being merchandised / photoed In-House or Out-Sourced?

What has worked best for you and your dealership?

Interesting study and not exactly a new one.  As when it was first published, I'll challenge the study and while interesting in premise it is flawed on several levels:

1) The people creating the study have a vested interest in the outcome and therefore are biased in the way the experiment is conducted and carried out
2) There are too many variables to isolate to call this a "fair test" as definied by the scientific community
3) Sample size is too small
4) Results, dealers and data were not published

Frankly, this is just marketing and unsubstantiated statistics.  

That being said, I don't have a dog in the fight.  Our company provides both an in-house tool for the DIY set and a full-service offering.  

In my personal opinion, I would tell you that I wouldn't jump to any conclusions based on this "study".  It is truly a dealer-by-dealer decision, if a dealer has the best processes down at the dealership eventually you'll reach the point where this is a consideration.  That point comes somewhere between making you sure you are handling your leads, mystery shopping for improvement areas and following up your customers AND social media.  I wouldn't attempt to take on things like Twitter or photography until you've got the most important processes at your store completely handled.  

If you are up to it, there are many comparable tools and management systems available to you as the dealer and there are also companies that will service your dealership on an every day basis, so there are options that aren't necessarily represented in this study.  Again, I represent a company that can serve you with whatever decision you make... 

Sorry to put a dissenting view on here but I'm a cynic at heart and when I read something that looks more like a marketing ploy than a scientific study but claimed as the latter, I gotta say something... finally.  
Terrance brings up lots of great points. Thanks Terrance…studies be that cool kid’s candy I likes. (Ebonics was intended) Sir Garvin brings out some definite questions that surfaced in my mind…which need to be brought to light before moving towards any conclusions.

For me takeaways from books like “Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks & Fraud in Financial Reports”, being a previous car dealer son, having a degree in Economics, & being a dealer consultant since 1994 load my subconscious full of mind blocks from “$288K to the bottom line” hypnotizing statements.

So while adding 288K to the bottom line is awesome possum to the nostalgic conscious mind, the realistic subconscious may invariably question the validity especially after history such as the 1929 stock market crash, Enron, Bernie Madoff aka someone said he “made off” with lots of peoples money, & interesting reports like this from PBS’s FrontLine “Black Money”

(In a playfully respectful voice) Terrance you brought the Yang and we brought the Yin so lay out that data that resides in your den. ;-)
Glen, although I can appreciate cynicism (we all know this industry has the potential to breed it), we have zero vested interest in whether or not a dealership takes their own photos.  The study was based solely on photography - not software. 

And yes, it's not a "scientific study" (nor does it claim to be), but the sample set was picked at random and we felt 20 franchise dealers (10 vs 10) was a substantial enough set.  I can assure you a larger set would perpetuate our findings.  

The numbers are simply overwhelming in favor of dealers taking their own photos.  Take away the $288k, and our data still supports faster time to market and lower days in stock - all which I'm sure you will agree affect the bottom line.  

Isn't it also frivolous to lump Twitter and Photography responsibilities in with each other.  A dealership will still sell cars online without a Twitter account...

Your points above seem based solely on your opinion, so if you (who represents a lot service company which arguably could be considered to actually have a dog in the fight) can provide data on the contrary it would be interesting to compare notes.
  • J
    Jeff Kershner
  • October 25, 2011
I figured this would get a few people talking...

IMO there is not real right or wrong answer to this...well maybe there is but it depends on several variables.

My personal preference is to bring inventory photos and merchandising in house. A dealer typically has more control over the process and quality. Having someone in house (depending on the internal set-up) can provide many advantages as listed in this small study and as discussed over on the forums -

Having someone full time at your disposal no doubt allows you to get your vehicles front line ready for your cyber lot much faster. As long as the wheels are turning smoothly at the dealership.

However for many dealers bringing photos in-house is one more thing to worry about, one more person to manage. And what happens when that person decides to up and quit? That's always my biggest fear and it's happened to me before. You get that phone call (or maybe not even) finding out that the photo guy didn't show up today and has decided he's not going to show up - ever. Your heart races because you know you're screwed. You need to quickly hire another person and train all over again.

I don't know about other dealers but for some reason (since it was my idea to bring it on house) the inventory photos process, employee and hiring falls under my title.

Of course once I leave and move on - who will take over as manager of this employee? Good question huh. Who knows - but I bet with time, the local Dealer Specialties rep will be getting a phone call. :)

And that would be totally ok - I don't have an issue with outsourcing to DS or AutoUpLinkUSA or
whomever as long as they get the job done and are passionate about their

Each dealer has to make their own decision on this. Research the local inventory photo service, research what it would take to bring it in house and make the right call. But take it serious! And this is where most fail.

The point to this post -  this is an important important decision, but so many dealers are still not taking this 101 step serious. Heck, I'm still knocking on the door of one of the GM's at my Dealer Group roup to allow the hiring of another employee or find someone within the company to take photos of our new car inventory. It's been 2 months since we "started" this hiring process. Meanwhile the competition has figured out a process for new car photos and is gaining market share as we speak.

  • Anonymous
  • October 26, 2011
There is only one question a dealership needs to answer. How important is photography (and online merchandising) to a dealership’s success today?

@glen garvin - Published study or not, you would be hard pressed to convince me that outsourcing a core competency required to be a successful retailer today is good for the dealership OR the bottom line.

Dealerships must embrace and own their online initiatives. This is simply not going away. Photography, price, options, and descriptions are the emotional triggers that drive connectivity with your customer.
  • J
  • October 28, 2011
We do everything in-house except the descriptions -- we outsource the narrative writing and pay a per-car expense.  Photos are handled by a "team" of photographers who work for our BDC.  Someone calls off sick, no problem.  Someone quits, no problem.  The BDC staff likes it (at least they like it when it's warm) because it helps break-up the monotony of sitting in-front of the screen all day.  We drew-up a simple process diagram to ensure we are consistent with our efforts across all of our photographers.  Feedback has been positive on the efforts as well as the finished product.  Really, even companies that don't have a BDC can accomplish the same -- I mean, c'mon, snapping pictures is not rocket science.  Reception staff, lot porters, etc. can be trained to snap a few good pictures.  
  • J
    Jeff Kershner
  • October 28, 2011
I somewhat agree with you John but I would disagree that anyone can take photos. One would think anyone can take good photos but the truth is, most people suck at it. They take very little pride and for some reason most people are not good at aligning the vehicle in the viewfinder or screen for a nice photo. It amazes me how many people are not good at taking photos. This only my experience. Maybe I've ran into a lot of people that just suck at taking photos.
  • J
  • October 28, 2011
You know it's funny you say that, because when we first developed the process, I was doing it a lot myself.  I'm not exactly a schmuck -- I was careful and meticulous and paid attention to the details.  

My pictures sucked.  

The secret?  I was too tall.  It was all about the angles.  Result?  Shorter people take our photos (and I'm not joking).

But hey -- money where my mouth is:

These are all shot by a team of entry-level employees.  Like I said, feedback has been positive, but in the spirit of kaisan, we're always looking to improve.  

Do these suck?
  • J
  • October 28, 2011
I reviewed your website per your request and the photos look alright.  I noticed that you got the front wheels steered towards the camera to show the tire tread?  I would steer the rims towards the camera to show the rims off.  You have some photos with the rims turned and some without.  Some first photos are off-center and some are at higher levels pointing down at the vehicle.  If the same person was taking the photos, this wouldn't happen.  The interior photos need some close ups to highlight the "goodies".  Why only 20+ photos of each car?  I take between 27 and 40 photos for some dealers and it's not difficult to script out what photos to take.  All and all you do a good job.  I don't see any night photos, cutoff bumpers or roofs, you remove paper mats and any other distracts before photo'ing the vehicles.  Research indicates that a first photo of a vehicle should point at the area where you want the customer to click, so maybe you should consider switching the first photo to the passenger side three-quarter photo.  When photo'ing the dash, turn the car to accessory to illuminate the dash (example:  Sienna TS0341). Just some ideas.

Also and just as important as Photos, is the Vehicle Option List.  DIY is more than just the photos.  I reviewed several of your vehicles and I was able to discover many mistakes in the vehicle option area.  It seems as though you allow a VIN decoder to populate your options with no human oversight.  HUGE MISTAKE!

You have a Monte Carlo SS with a Power Sunroof, which I can see from the photos, but it's not mentioned in the vehicle options.  What if I was an online shopper looking for a Monte Carlo SS in your area, but I only wanted a Monte with a Sunroof and when I searched for a Monte Carlo I used the very handy KeyWord Search that is available on many of the major vehicle locating websites; such as and, your Monte Carlo would not display in the results.  So a lost opportunity and maybe a lost sale?

Here's more examples:

2008 Buick Enclave - T28329B - it has a Power Sunroof, DVD Entertainment System, Bose Audio System and not listed in your option list.  Another lost opportunity?

BMW 3series - L11271A - this one is hard to see and call, but I think I can make out the power folding mirror button on the door and see the buttons for the universal garage door opener on the bottom of the rearview mirror so this car might have the Premium Pkg which includes Leather, Universal garage door opener, BMW Assist, Bluetooth, power lumbar, memeory seats, power folding mirrors, auto-dimming mirror and more.  Also, it looks as if this car has heated seats.  A close up photo of the dash controls would help.  You listed it as having Premium Synthetic Seats.  Another lost opportunity?

CTS - P15604 - missing Power Sunroof

STS - P15126A - Missing Power Sunroof and you have listed "Navigation from Telematics" which seems to indicate injunction with On*Star, but your car has the full screen DVD based navigation system

Finally, I found the Escalade with an adjusted vehicle option list.  You added 22" rims, DVD, and Power Sunroof.  Based on what I see, you are using HomeNet for your inventory management tool, correct?  I can help you with this because I use HomeNet too, but mine has been altered to give me the best outcome when dealing with vehicle options.

Remember this important factor:  Everything rolls downhill from your Inventory Management Company.  For example: your vehicle comments don't include references to these options on these vehicles listed above because you didn't include them in the description, so your vehicles comments are not "optimized".  Your vehicle videos don't mention these options during the video, another lost opportunity to sell that vehicle based on it's unique options.  Lastly, as mentioned above, the KeyWord Search on and  The list continues.

Data Collection and Photo Collection is an specialized field.  Sending just "anyone" out to do the "job" won't get you the results you need.  I've heard stories about sending receptionist out to photo cars or salespeople or porters or just anyone available.  How much does your website cost per month? How much does an contract cost per month?  How much does a contract cost per month?  How much does a live voice video cost per month?  That's a lot of money depending on the photo taker and data collector, why trust it to just anyone?  This "job" is the most important job in the dealership!  And you're going to trust that this is done right by sending just anyone out to the lot to collect some photos and some data?

Some dealers can do DIY right, but most do it wrong or very wrong.  And the dealers who say they do it best and give lectures on how to save money by doing it themselves, do it the worst.   The header says put $288K on the bottom line, but for must dealers it might cost them $288K.
  • J
  • October 28, 2011
Ahhhhh..... a specialist!  Thank you soooo much for the reply!  The "lurkers" on this blog make it what it is: the BEST automotive resource on the net!  My company will review each word you said in an effort to improve our processes, I can assure you!  

Unfortunately, the one thing I've found in-common with all specialists is that you all think what you do is THE Most Important thing.  I've yet to find a "global" specialist that can take "ALL" into consideration beyond GM or Owner level thinking.  

Can you spell ROI?

The subject matter was photo taking.  Are we perfect or did we claim to be? No.  Do I wish our Used guys did a better job with the check marks on the options boxes? Yes.  Is there a line between paying a "specialist" and doing the job in-house well enough?  Duh.  Care to discuss market leadership?

I remember a very high ranking officer in our company asking a local photography agency to take a look at our photos and our product and to make a recommendation.  Hahahhaha.... I love the guy and am a friend to the family, but WHOA!  

You have to be [redacted] if you think you need to professionally photograph your inventory.   This is (almost) 2012: the clients want to see simple validation when they arrive on the lot: "This is what I saw."  


But I digress - I appreciate your effort and expertise here, but I caution you about your $288K comment.  You obviously have no dealership experience, and hence no grounds to claim anything other than photoshop awards.

What a great discussion! The path to photo quality is having a buttoned up process, there seems to be uniform agreement on that. However, there are two additional problems impacting the decision of whether to produce the photos in house or outsource it. 
1. Getting it done right away. This week there were over 1.3 million vehicles on Here was the breakdown:
No photos on 71% of the vehicles listed for 3 days or less
No photos on 42% of the vehicles listed for 4-7 days
No pontos on 28% of the vehicles listed for 8-14 days
No photos on 16% of the vehicles listed for 15 days to one month
No photos on 7% of the vehicles listed for more than one month
(It takes a little math to get these numbers, but the raw data is public information and the process can be repeated at any time using the entire inventory set filtered for dealer listings only.)

As an industry, we are not getting this vital job done fast enough, no less done right. Whether you are waiting on the external rep or someone internally, every day your vehicle waits for photos is flooring expense and depreciation with little hope for a sale. And forget the excuse about cars waiting for detailing or recon. I monitor Finish Line Ford closely, because they are a used-vehicle merchandising machine. The only time I find more than 2% of their inventory without photos is when they receive a fresh batch of vehicles that don't make the feed that day. Less than 2% should be everyone's standard. If the vehicle needs extensive reconditioning then merchandise it with the appropriate notation before reconditioning and make the adjustments after. Get the car up for sale.

2. Photos and videos may be enough for new cars but not used. Every used vehicle needs a vehicle condition report. Making that level of transparency available online enhances preference for the vehicle and preference for your store. You wouldn't consider a wholesale vehicle listed online without a condition report. Consumers are no less skeptical and no more forgiving about having their time wasted.

The new standard is a process that anyone can follow to produce the right photos, videos and a condition report. If only one person can do it, internal or external, there are going to be days when it does not happen. Speed and quality are both dependent upon simplicity of process. 

Most stores do not have the volume Finish Line Ford does, making it hard to scale a proprietary process. However, dealers in Canada have been solving this problem for over two years with cDemo's Mobile Inspector app on the iPhone. It was recently released in the U.S. and quickly won the AWA award for Best Mobile Application and was a finalist for the DrivingSales Innovation Cup. The process is built into the app. I had my whole family testing it in the driveway this week. My wife, brother, and daughter-in-law could all complete the entire process with no prior training. I think I can train my 8-year old granddaughter to do it with additional explanations about drivetrains, tires, and how to get the hood open. We'll see.

Process, process, process. It is less about who than how. As Jeff pointed out, the who is going to change on you. Make the process simple enough and uniform enough, with one common device, to nullify the question of who should do it.