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car dealership COVID.jpg
COVID triggered quick changes in how dealerships do business.

Car Dealers Acted Fast When COVID Came

In a Wards/Ally webinar, executives of two major dealer groups tell how quickly their operations changed when COVID upended life as we know it.

COVID-19 has wrought overwhelming negatives to the auto-retailing world, but in one respect it’s had an unwittingly positive effect:

It accelerated progressive projects that had been in the works or were on the drawing board, say participants in a Wards/Ally webinar entitled “The Consumer Revolution and the Auto Retailing Future,” available on demand.

Panelist Ronald MacEachern of the Troy, MI-based Suburban Collection tells of what happened when the dealership group resumed showroom sales after a state-imposed pandemic-related shutdown last spring.

“When we reopened, we went from thinking to acting fast” in executing new initiatives, says MacEachern, platform vice president and general manager at Suburban, No.17 on the WardsAuto 2020 Megadealer 100.

“Before, one store had DocuPAD (an interactive tabletop digital device that aids in finance and insurance menu presentations and document processing). Within three months, all the stores had it. I was encouraged how quickly we adapted.”

In retrospect, “We’ve made more changes in the last six months than in the last 10 years,” he says. “It was a bad couple of months (March and April) – more than we could ever have imagined. But more importantly, we positioned ourselves for 2021 and beyond.”

He anticipates Suburban and dealers in general will do well this year, especially ones that have been “practicing and working out.”

The dark days of auto retailing “offered an opportunity to look in the mirror and analyze some things we had talked about, and then implemented,” says Ryan LaFontaine, CEO of the Highland, MI-based LaFontaine Automotive Group, No.53 on the WardsAuto 2020 Megadealer 100.

“It changed our mindset,” he says. “It was an education in adversity. We got a great education there.”

For one thing, it resulted in greater employee accountability, especially when it came to adapting to new ways, says LaFontaine (pictured below, left). “A lot of employees can be resistant to change. This (the pandemic) forced change.”

Ryan LaFontaine.jpgHe notes home delivery of purchased or serviced vehicles “has been around for 20 years,” but not as a regular offering. Now it is.

The LaFontaine group is poised for a “gangbuster” 2021, says its CEO, noting the need to focus on both customers and “the controllables.”

The ability of large dealership operations such as Suburban and LaFontaine “to get ahead of the curve (serves as an example) for smaller players to get in the digital hunt,” says webinar panelist Patrick Hennessey, Ally Insurance’s senior director-sales.

Whether a car consumer prefers to shop online or at the dealership, the same process applies, LaFontaine says. “We make sure we accommodate them wherever they want to connect.”

In a self-critique of its digital retailing efforts, MacEachern says Suburban “had the process down, but we didn’t have the proper handoff from when people went offline and into the store.”

Now, staffers meet daily to discuss how to make that transition seamless, especially in knowing what point in the car-buying process customers are at when they visit the store.

“We’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet,” says MacEachern (pictured below, left). “But it’s got to happen.”

Ron MacEachern.jpgIt requires dealer diligence to know what shopping and research consumers have done digitally and what vehicles they’ve shown an interest in. Surveys indicate consumers expect dealership staff to know that when they ultimately go to the store.

They don’t want to start from scratch in the showroom. “They don’t want to reset,” says Hennessey (pictured below, left), adding “nearly everyone looking to buy a car today starts online.”

To accomplish that seamless transition from offline to in-store requires “everyone on the team pulling in the same direction,” he says. Often, the best ways to make meaningful changes “are done in the trenches.”

LaFontaine adds: “If you don’t want a challenge, you shouldn’t be in business in the first place.”

Still, he says, “Anyone who said they were prepared for (how COVID has affected business operations) is lying.”

In conjunction with the webinar, Wards Intelligence and Ally surveyed dealers to gauge how the digital age might alter their operations, expectations and consumer buying habits.

Patrick Hennessey.jpgAmong the findings:

  • Large dealership groups appear better prepared for digital sales than are smaller stores.
  • Management tends to be more bullish than staff regarding internet initiatives.
  • Digital tools aren’t seen by most respondents as a way to reduce inventory through build-to-order customization.
  • Selling consumers F&I products online remains a challenge. Customers may become initially familiar with those products online, but most surveyed dealers expect completing the F&I process will remain at the dealership.

To receive the full survey, click here

Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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