Before entering auto retailing, Robert Karbaum sold hemp suits to Woody Harrelson and vegan food to other customers for an online retailer. The job required him to be vegan, so he pretended to follow the lifestyle. He worried he'd get caught with a burger on his breath and fired, but he loved working in a business he saw as being on the leading edge of change.
"I love to be on the cusp of industries that are emerging, and that was a key time when people started to think about what was in their food and clothing," Karbaum said. "It was the same with the automotive industry and the online space."
In 2008, he joined what he calls the "Internet people" in the automotive world, shaping the initial online strategies for the Weins Canada Inc. dealership group.
At the time, many dealers threw away online leads, thinking they were only best-price shoppers and that the Internet fad wouldn't last, he recalled. "I came from a younger generation that very much knew where the Internet was heading and that it was going to change commerce as a whole," Karbaum said.
Karbaum helped to create a company culture in which every lead was treated as a potential customer. As a result of that and other changes, he said, total vehicle sales revenue from e-commerce increased 40 percent annually from 2010 to 2014.
Among his innovations: an "appointment boarding pass" sent to customers' smartphones minutes after they schedule a test drive. Modeled after airlines' boarding passes, it notifies customers that their "booking is confirmed." In April 2013, he decided to test it at the group's Don Valley North Lexus store, which had been getting only 36 percent of its scheduled test drive customers to show up. In the first month, the store's show rate surged to 68 percent.
In 2015, he joined Canada's largest privately held automotive group: Dilawri Group of Cos., which sells 31 brands at 58 franchised dealerships. He took his appointment boarding pass with him.
Karbaum also moved quickly to adapt to increased consumer online demand on a larger scale. He worked with autoTRADER.ca, a site run by Canada's Trader Corp., to launch a digital platform for the dealership group in December 2015.
The website's transactional pricing offers transparent and upfront vehicle prices that include all fees, rebates and such. Karbaum said all key digital-performance indicators, such as website visits and vehicle detail page views, have increased since the platform's launch, while bounce rates -- a measure of consumers who visit one page on a dealership's site and then leave with no further interaction -- have fallen.