The future: Virtual shopping
Dealerships in GM's next century will be smarter, smaller and software-driven
Reed: Massive service departments
I return to the dealership where I bought the Volt to add some accessories. The dealership's accessorizer wall rocks.
Welcome to 2020. The way we buy cars has radically changed. GM dealerships have adapted. The stores are smaller, smarter and convenient. The service area is off-site and works on a dizzying array of powertrains and vehicle technologies.
Most of the sales are completed online before the customers show up. But the human touch still is important.
I make an appointment online to meet with a sales technician at my dealership. I'm early. I go to the adjoining bookstore to read magazines. The buzzer in my hand goes off. The sales technician is free.
My turn on the accessorizor wall! With a touch, I bring up a full-scale model of the car I'm buying. I play with different colors and accessories. I decide to add a DVD player in the back seat and add an option to extend the battery life. We're done.
I do the financing online. I also buy a warranty for the accessories I've added, whether or not they're made by the manufacturer.
Some saw it coming
Turns out they saw all this coming way back in 2008 — the general idea, anyway, if not all of the specifics. "The ability to give the customer what they want where they want it will be the key driver," says John Reed, director of automotive retail solutions at Microsoft Corp.
Another big change about the GM dealership of the future: It's smaller. Because customers will do more of their shopping and buying online, dealerships won't need as many display models.
"Dealership inventory will decrease because of the convenience and exactness of using the Internet," predicts Scott Gruwell, new-car director at Courtesy Chevrolet of Phoenix.
To make shopping more convenient, there also may be small satellite dealerships, says John Holt, CEO of Cobalt Group, a marketing services provider in Seattle.
He rejects the idea that dealerships will disappear in favor of the Internet. "The Internet will facilitate dealerships, but the Internet can't change the oil," Holt says.
The service area where that oil change takes place will be a lot different than today's service area. In the future, the service department could be bigger than the showroom.
With the high price of urban real estate, it won't always be next door, either, says Bill Stacy, director of strategic operations for GM dealer network planning and investment. "We're going to see split facilities," he says. "A dealership might have a service facility a half-mile away."
Photo credit: GREG MOONEY
Service departments will face "a smorgasbord of fuel technologies," says Mike Bowsher, co-chair of the Buick-Pontiac-GMC Divisional Dealer Council and president of Carl Black Auto Group of Atlanta. A car with an internal combustion engine will drive in followed by an SUV powered by a fuel cell.
A lot of repair work in 2020 will be updating software — and in some cases customers will do the updating themselves, at home, through their computers. "Updating or adding new capabilities, or fixing software bugs, will be relatively simple," Holt says.
He compares it to his ability to program a universal remote to control five different home electronics devices from his computer.
When people do take their cars in for repair, the vehicles' computers already may have told the dealership what's wrong through a remote connection.
GM dealerships in 2020 will have lots of new software tools to boost efficiency. For the back office, software will give dealers a bird's-eye view of their operations, from financing and insurance to repairs, Reed says.
In 2020, a much greater portion of advertising budgets will be spent on the Internet. The manufacturer and dealership will coordinate their advertising messages closely, says Mike Devereux, executive director of digital marketing and customer resource management at GM.
Ads will be aimed at people who are already in the market for a car. "We will be much more targeted at where we spend our dollars," he says.
A cornucopia of digital media, such as mobile phone, third-party Web sites, e-mail and online classifieds will vie for a dealership's advertising dollars in the future, says Max Steckel, executive director of advertising products at Cobalt.
"It won't be a choice of 'Do I do search or display?' " he says. "It will be a question of 'How do I distribute my dollars across that mix?' "
Meanwhile, back in 2020, I've finished configuring my car on the accessorizer wall. But I'm not going to leave right away. The traffic is terrible this time of day. I think I'll have a cappuccino, check my e-mail and drive a Camaro on the Pacific Coast Highway in the test drive simulator. I've always been an adrenaline junkie.