JIM HENRY

F&I drives store visits -- but for how long?

COMMENTARY
Jim Henry is a special correspondent for <i>Automotive News</i>.
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The need to consult an F&I expert is driving people to dealerships.

A recent study by McKinsey & Co. found that one of the main reasons consumers go to a dealership rather than buy their car online is to get questions answered about finance and insurance.

Most people don't understand how auto finance works, according to the study, "Innovating Automotive Retail." Auto loans are complicated, with a lot of moving parts, including trade-ins. And it's difficult to get conclusive answers to specific questions online.

"Not every consumer is well-versed in how auto finance works or trusts the online information," Hans-Werner Kaas, a Detroit-based senior partner for McKinsey, told me during a phone interview.

"You can shop for home mortgages online and find out from a lot of sites what the rates are. But with an auto transaction, there are so many more elements to the financing: the residual value on a lease, the APR, what the down payment should be, the net money out of pocket."

So given the complexity of financing a car -- plus consumers' access to test drives -- the future of brick-and-mortar dealerships appears safe, right?

Maybe not.

There are plenty of initiatives going on to make it easier to buy and finance cars online, even ones from automakers. For example, General Motors launched an initiative, "Shop-Click-Drive," in November 2013.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises consumers to line up financing with a lender before visiting a dealership to get an idea of what's reasonable to expect and to give the dealership a "meet or beat" target. Many lenders take credit applications online, giving consumers another reason to skip the dealership.

In addition, regulators such as the CFPB and Federal Trade Commission could decide to "simplify" auto lending, mandating more consumer education and more transparency in auto deals.

And in the long run, that could result in fewer compelling reasons to visit brick-and-mortar stores.

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com.

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