Digital auto retailing is getting more personal.
That’s positive, because online shoppers like the “human” touch, even if it comes from non-human software.
So say automotive panelists who spoke during a Reuters webinar entitled “Wow the Customer in the Decade of Transformation.”
Digital personalization, or the systematic ability to use artificial intelligence to get to know and individually respond to online car shoppers, “used to be operationally expensive,” but today “the barriers are getting lower,” says panelist Alain Nana-Sinkam, a senior vice president at TrueCar, an online automotive marketplace that matches sellers and buyers.
Advances in digital marketing make this one of “the most exciting times in automotive history,” says Brian Kramer, executive vice president of Cars.com, a third-party lead provider to car dealers.
In a seeming AI irony, he adds: “New technology will bring back the humanity of interacting.”
Sensing customer wants and needs is vital to a car sale, whether it’s done in-store or online using sophisticated software systems, webinar participants say.
With modern technology, “the pace of learning – the time it takes to get to know the customer – can happen so fast now,” says Wendy Bauer, general manager of AWS Automotive, a data/digital unit of online retail giant Amazon. “The pace of innovation is incredible.”
Digital retailing “is a whole new ball game” as technology progresses and more internet-reliant young people enter the automotive market, says Amira Aly, director-financial services for Lucid Motors, an electric-vehicle startup.
She sees “big opportunities” to leverage AI to enhance the online car-buying experience. One of them is a chat function that anticipates shopper questions, Aly says. “I don’t have to think it through because (the chat technology) is walking me through it. That’s how you delight the customer. That’s in the future.”
A TrueCar poll indicates 62% of surveyed auto consumers say they would consider a full online buying experience.
Of that group, 81% who say they are willing to "pay more for a superior experience" plan to buy their next car online, Nana-Sinkam says. “It’s like some consumers would pay 40 bucks extra to get on a plane first.”
Bauer advocates a digital car-buying process that offers users choices, convenience, flexibility and control. “There are a lot of benefits when you give those.”
As advanced as digital auto retailing has become, webinar participants don’t foresee it ultimately replacing in-dealership shopping.
“There’s a happy medium,” Aly says. “You can’t discount what dealers have done, from offering test drives to being there to talk about the product.”
She advocates the current hybrid model that combines online and in-person shopping. “If online were so good, we wouldn’t have studios, which is what Lucid calls its dealerships,” she says.
Adds Nana-Sinkam, referring to well-trained showroom staffers: “There is always a need for an expert who can demystify the process.”
Kramer says of his personal car buying: “I still rely on dealerships. A lot of dealers do a fantastic job, with or without the customers coming in.”
He says statistical research debunks some preconceived notions, including his own, such as the idea that people won’t buy a vehicle without first test-driving it. “I had thought that was true, but that was before I saw the data,” Kramer says. “The fact is, some car buyers don’t want a test drive.”
Car shoppers once typically followed a straight step-by-step car-buying journey. Not anymore. Not in the digital age.
“One of the biggest changes is that the road to a car sale is no longer linear,” Nana-Sinkam says. “There needs to be flexibility for consumers who want to start in different ways.”