Why showrooms are slow to join tablet revolution

It’s fair to say most dealers embrace technology.

They have active Web sites and Facebook pages. They use camera phones to videotape vehicle walk-arounds and then e-mail images to customers. Many finance and insurance managers use tablet computers to present menus. And most of the large public auto dealership groups are using tablet devices in the service lanes.

But there seems to be one last frontier in technology that has many dealers scratching their heads: the use of iPads or tablets in the showroom for sales.

Some have slowly started venturing into this area.

Last spring, Sonic Automotive started giving iPads to its service department and other areas, including sales representatives. The nation's third-largest retailer is spending $57 million on technology this year. It's placing a big bet that arming its customer-facing employees with Apple devices will increase their productivity, convince customers to spend more and improve loyalty. But the program is so new that Sonic is not discussing how it will work with the sales staff.

AutoNation leaders say they will make a $50 million technology investment over the next few years. That will include tablets in the service drive and possibly in sales, but the company is still in the planning stage.

Asbury envisions a day when tablets replace PCs in most areas of the dealership.

And Ford Motor Co. is beginning the rollout of an iPad app, titled the Showcase App, for sales reps.

Yet a lot of dealers seem to be holding out on using iPads or tablets in the showroom.

They still have questions and concerns about the value the devices would bring a salesperson and a customer -- after all, the devices are not cheap. They also want to know the software is available to make iPads and tablets compatible with their data management systems.

Then there is the question on managing the actual iPad or tablet hardware. Said one dealer: “Should I hand them out in the morning and collect them at night? Or do I let my salespeople keep them? What if they drop one or aren’t using it as intended?”

Yet, this dealer believes, “In the future, it’ll be a great tool.”

In the meantime, he told me, if I did find a dealer who is successfully using iPads or tablets in sales, that’s an article he’d want to read.

Amen, dealers. If you’re doing this, shoot me an e-mail at jlareau@crain.com.

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