Online sales are now a big and fast-growing part of U.S. retail sales, for everything from books to auto parts. True, the total amount of retail sales booked online is a small fraction of the total volume of consumer goods, but it is the fastest growing of all sales channels, tantalizing manufacturers with its efficiency and low cost (not to mention the potential boost to the bottom line).

This week, The Economist looks at the prospects for online auto sales in the U.S., a market locked in the grip of the nationwide franchise network of auto dealers. To date, attempts to sell cars online have not been promising, but things may (slowly) be changing.

With a whopping two-thirds of new car customers researching their purchases online and virtually complete access to the byzantine maze of rebates and incentives, consumers have been using their new-found knowledge to drive down the dealer's profit margin. This is making some dealers, notably consolidated dealer networks like Lithia and AutoNation, consider how to better integrate online retailing into their operations. As a direct result, AutoNation is launching its SmartChoice online service in June.

Meanwhile, financial institutions like Capital One and Chase (think auto loans) are looking at online auto retail channels as a way to streamline the buying process for their loan clients - using volume buying power to guarantee a fixed price for its customers before they set foot in dealerships. Capital One has partnered with Zag - an internet-based company that brings its car buying expertise to affinity and membership organizations (think credit unions, buyers clubs like Costco, etc.). Even Amazon is rumored to be looking at auto sales.

Is this the death knell for the dealership? Well, no. By law, independent online sellers cannot buy "factory direct" - they must buy their cars from a dealer. Besides, virtual test drives aren't very much fun.

Have you/would you bought/buy a car completely online through eBay Motors or another service? Fess up in 'Comments.'

[Source: The Economist - subscription required]