When shoppers pull into the dealership lot and immediately whip out their phones as they browse, Charlie Daniel takes that as a clear sign they don't want salespeople hanging over their shoulders.
"The consumer is not interested in that face-to-face. They just want information," says Daniel, corporate operations director for Stevenson Automotive Group, which has 15 stores in eastern North Carolina. "It used to be that the handshake and meet-and-greet was the most important part of the sale."
But Daniel and other auto retailers are finding that the new style of shopping need not be threatening. They say that dealers who embrace the accessibility of real-time information end up with satisfied, well-informed customers and lose fewer shoppers to competitors.
More than half of Americans have smartphones in their pockets or purses, and mobile devices have taken on a major role in the car-buying process, especially in the critical later stages. The ubiquity of mobile devices means shoppers can find out easily if a store across town offers a better deal.
But experts say there is plenty of upside for dealers.
Mobile technology can help attract customers even when a dealership is closed. And no longer do many customers need to "go home and think about it" because they can do more research without leaving the showroom.
"It's becoming more acceptable to say, 'I'm going to check this on my phone, if you don't mind,'" says Andy O'Dower, director of mobile product management at Cars.com.
"For a dealer, an educated consumer is one that is much more apt to close. The best dealers realized very quickly that it's the age of transparency."