UPDATED: 1/31/14 10:01 am ET - corrects photo caption
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified two of the panel participants -- Thomas Laymac of Chrysler and Mark Ramsey of Audi -- in the photo caption. The caption has been corrected.
NEW ORLEANS -- The challenge for automakers trying to funnel shoppers to dealerships via digital media is mind-boggling -- how to simplify communications in a technology sphere that is continually growing and changing.
But the reward, panelists said Friday at the J.D. Power International Automotive Roundtable here, makes the effort worthwhile. Automakers who streamline digital car-buying can remove much of the stress in the traditional shopping experience by making customers confident in their deal before they walk into the showroom.
"It's all about comfort, giving the consumer the information he needs to feel comfortable enough to have a conversation with a dealer and know that what they're going to get is reasonable, that they're going to get the vehicle that they've been looking for at a reasonable price," said panelist Thomas Laymac, director of global digital marketing for Chrysler Group. "And that requires information."
But proliferating digital devices -- smartphones, tablets and the like -- complicate things.
Mark Ramsey, general manager of digital operations for Audi of America, says it is especially challenging to give consumers a rich experience on a smartphone screen,
"When you get on a mobile device, it's just not a great experience overall," Ramsey said. "I think one of the things that we're exploring is how to transition from traditional media models to these phone calls, which are exploding."
Panelists said that the solution to complexity in digital devices is most likely to simplify the multiple shopping platforms that automakers and dealers offer.
Kimberly Gardiner, director of digital marketing strategy for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said that it makes sense to put brand information and specs on dealer sites as well as the automaker site, and likewise to make inventory and price available through the automaker site.
"One of the things that we're looking at is collapsing, if you will, the shopping path," Gardiner said.
The goal, panelists said, is to provide a seamless shopping experience, keeping track of a consumer's visit and preferences during a vehicle search and relaying that information to a dealer.
That could also benefit consumers by allowing them to negotiate price, trade-in value and financing before visiting a store. Younger car-buyers tend to be anxious about financing, Gardiner said, so arranging that in advance can smooth a deal.
Laymac agreed, saying: "We work very closely with Chrysler Financial, and we have pre-qualification tools so we are able to move farther and farther down that purchase process. We can get them pre-qualified. And we find that those finance leads convert at a ridiculous rate."