Car Dealerships Are Must-Stops Even for Digital Consumers

Auto dealership executives discuss how to keep the physical store relevant in the Internet world.

Steve Finlay, Contributing Editor

September 23, 2019

2 Min Read
Rehn Osmers Maledon cropped
Conference panelists (from left) Rehn, Osmers and Maledon.

Even in the digital world, most auto shoppers want to physically visit a dealership, according to a Cox Automotive survey.

That’s because car buying largely is a sensory experience. It includes seeing, feeling, touching and smelling a vehicle of interest.

But most car consumers want to do as much shopping and researching online as they can. They average about 14 hours doing that, according to Cox’s 2019 Car Buyer Journey Study. (In contrast, satisfaction scores plunge if time at the dealership exceeds three hours.)

The auto-retailing industry once saw dealer websites as extensions of showrooms. Now, it’s pretty much the other way around: “The showroom is an extension of the website,” says Tony Rehn, executive managing partner at Evergreen Chevrolet in Issaquah, WA, near Seattle, which is home to Microsoft and, as he notes, “a tech-savvy market.”

Still, even the tech crowd wants to keep it real. Evergreen Chevy put on a car show featuring 500 vehicles. “About 12,000 people attended,” Rehn says.

To consumers (and dealers), it makes sense to leverage the latest digital technology to do much of the work associated with buying a vehicle, including checking inventory, appraising a trade-in and applying for financing.

But there are limits, says Michael Maledon, executive vice president of John Elway Dealerships, with five stores in two states. Its eponymous dealer principal is a former Denver Broncos star quarterback.

With most customers – especially those with less-than-sterling  credit – “it’s easier to talk about financing and explain it to them in the store with a qualified finance manager, as opposed to a kid handling a BDC (business development center) lead,” Maledon says, adding “Any prime customer can figure out financing.”

“Buying cars is not the same as buying sunglasses on Amazon,” he says.

Maledon, Rehn, Mark Osmers of AutoNation and Digital Air Strike CEO and co-founder Alexi Venneri are panelists at a recent Thought Leadership Summits’ customer experience conference. Their session topic is “Keeping the Physical Store Relevant in the Digital World.”

“Every dealer wants the customer to have a wonderful experience,” says Venneri, whose company provides digital responses and social-media assistance to dealers.

Osmers, senior director-new vehicle marketing for AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership chain, cites “the relevance of the in-store experience.”

Elway websites include a third-party’s digital retailing tool that allows visitors to just about buy a car online from A to Z.

“I like it, but few customers want to go through that process,” Maledon says.

He questions the claim that the Internet can vastly expand a dealer’s market, saying he can theoretically sell a vehicle to a buyer in New Jersey, but a New Jersey dealer likely can do it better.    

A Digital Air Strike survey says the most enjoyable parts of buying a car at a dealership include top-notch customer service, browsing inventory and seeing vehicles in person, informative and pressure-free salespeople, an appealing environment and friendly, fast service.

The least-enjoyable list includes negotiations, waiting and not being promptly greeted or helped by a staffer.

About the Author(s)

Steve Finlay

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Steven Finlay is a former longtime editor for WardsAuto. He writes about a range of topics including automotive dealers and issues that impact their business.

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