LINDSAY CHAPPELL

This year’s buzz: Dealer apps

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.
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ORLANDO -- Was it all of three or four years ago that the buzz at the auto retailers convention was all about dealer Web sites? Who was doing them well? Who was missing the boat? Who was making sure they met standards, and what bright new promise did they held for the auto industry?

And suddenly last year the buzz shifted to social media. What hoopla that was -- Facebook management, Yelp issues and the millennial-aged employees who would be needed to make it all work.

This year the buzz has shifted again, this time to a hotter trend: mobile apps.

Mobile apps that let consumers peruse store inventory from their iPhones. Mobile apps that link shoppers to car specs and sales incentives. Mobile apps that market dealerships to customers, and mobile apps that connect customers and service departments.

Just in time for the NADA convention, Florida-based DMEautomotive last week released an ebook titled The Pocket Revolution: The Complete Guide to a Killer Mobile App. The resource is designed to help dealers get busy with their own mobile apps.

Brad Simmons, CEO of ClearMechanic of San Francisco, says the customer base for his mobile app has tripled in the past six months. The ClearMechanic app allows dealerships to shoot photos and live-stream video of a vehicle being serviced in a technician’s service bay to the iPhone or iPad of the waiting customer. It is a way for service shops to alert customers when incidental issues about the car need to be addressed.

Simmons has a plausible theory about why the technology is suddenly going airborne and the mobile app buzz is rising: The smartphone universe is expanding.

“We noticed a steep uptick in business right after the start of the new year,” he says. “I think that’s because a whole lot of people got new phones for Christmas.”

Simmons calls on dealerships to pitch his app. And the sales conversation has changed dramatically, he says.

“A couple of years ago, when we would explain to a dealer how this works, how the service adviser sends a photo of the work in progress to the customer, the No. 1 objection we would get was, ‘I don’t think my guys even own iPhones.’ We got that every time,” he says.

“Now it never even comes up,” he says. “I think iPhones have gotten so common, it’s just an accepted way to do business.”

Sounds plausible.

But what will next year’s buzz be? And whatever happened to all those Web sites?

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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