AutoNation Inc. is launching the use of touchpad tablets in some service lanes to speed customer service and make it more interactive.
Some other public auto retailers that started testing such programs early last year have since expanded them to more stores and seen gains in service revenue.
AutoNation, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., launched the pilot program at the end of the first quarter at its Mercedes-Benz of Fort Lauderdale store.
"We're calling it a pilot, but we're piloting it and rolling it out all at the same time," says Alan McLaren, AutoNation's senior vice president of customer care.
AutoNation, the largest auto retailer in the United States, has put the tablets in AutoNation Chevrolet Greenacres in Greenacres, Fla., and AutoNation Toyota Fort Myers in Fort Myers, Fla. The company is in the process of bringing five more stores in Florida into the program, McLaren says.
Each store has about 24 iPad tablets for its service advisers, integrated with the stores' data management systems, McLaren says.
A service adviser uses a tablet to look up the customer's repair history, then inspects the vehicle in the service drive and prepares a repair order on the tablet, using it to show options and price estimates to the customer.
A technician can use a tablet to take photos of parts in need of repair and electronically send the photos to the body shop or store them in the customer's car's history for future work, McLaren says. "It gives us more insight into the vehicle and is a more effective selling tool," he says. "It engages the customer, too, in the process of walking around the vehicle."
The tablets cannot process payments yet. McLaren hopes they can within nine to 12 months.
AutoNation will put the tablets in all of its dealerships within two years, he says. "We'd like it to be faster than that, but we also don't want to manage 230 introductions without fully mature software either," McLaren says. AutoNation has 226 dealerships, plus four stores under construction that are due to open by the end of 2014.
While declining to give a specific dollar figure, McLaren says AutoNation's investment in service tablets is "a lot, but we're very confident in the technology. We think it will deliver a much richer customer experience."
Sonic Automotive Inc. has led the way in using service iPads. Sonic, the nation's third-largest auto retailer, spent $24 million on iPads, iPhones and related software last year. It first tested service iPads in summer 2011. It had them in all of its stores by April this year.
At the Sonic stores that tested service iPads, customer-pay business increased. Partly as a result, grosses per repair order rose 11 percent on average at Sonic's Toyota dealerships and 8 percent at its Lexus stores.
Lithia Motors Inc. and Penske Automotive Group also tested tablets in some stores in 2012.
Penske is rolling out the tablets across its dealerships in the western region, says Tony Pordon, Penske's executive vice president of investor relations and corporate development in Detroit.
Lithia suffered a setback with the technology it first tried. It is re-testing the tablets at its Portland Mini and Portland Mercedes stores in Oregon using new software, said Ron Stoner, Lithia's vice president of fixed operations. At the end of August, he said, Lithia will re-evaluate the tablets and the new software to decide how to proceed.