The marketing approach will poke some fun at the inflatable-blue-gorilla and plaid-jacket stereotypes associated with dealership promotions. The idea is to "pick on ourselves a little bit for the past and then show how wonderful the future looks," Dyke said.
That message will spread to Sonic's other markets as the company takes the One Sonic-One Experience approach to its other dealerships in 2015 and possibly into 2016. Dyke wouldn't disclose the marketing budget for the national rollout but described it as a "big ouchy." Sonic is working with New York advertising agency Huge.
Changes in the store will be numerous. Highlights will include nearly paperless transactions, mobile credit card swiping and a so-called imagine bar where customers can research their purchases using iPads and a giant screen.
Customers hate paperwork, so going paperless was a high priority, Dyke said. But that's difficult because state and local regulations often require wet-ink signatures. In North Carolina, Sonic has trimmed paperwork from as many as 30 pieces of paper to be signed to three. Electronic signatures on the iPad or iPhone will work for everything else.
"Just that one small piece has probably taken us two years," Dyke said.
Sonic isn't alone in trying to transform the retail experience. Other dealership groups use a one-price sales model. Some use tablet computers in the showroom. But Sonic leaders say their competitors aren't as differentiated from one another as its stores will be after the rollout.
Some Sonic rivals are great dealers with outstanding customer satisfaction, Smith said, but "their systems are identical. They desk deals the same way, they meet and greet the same way, they appraise cars the same way as every other dealer out there. And we're changing that."
Smith isn't really out to change the industry; he wants to enjoy the competitive advantage he expects from Sonic's initiative as long as possible. But, he believes, the industry will change anyway as younger customers seek simplified buying experiences.
Other large dealership groups, including the other publics, are also working on the challenge. Some are running pilots for new sales approaches, including one-price selling. AutoNation, for example, is spending more than $100 million over several years to establish its brand and build a digital storefront that will allow shoppers to arrange vehicle purchases and trade-ins mostly online.
New Web sites are an important part of Sonic's plan, too. They will launch as the customer experience initiative rolls out and will include a customer portal where a shopper can search inventory, set up appointments and expedite the purchase.
"It's Amazon-dot-commish," Smith said.
How so? If a shopper selects, say, a Honda Fit EX, Sonic's site will offer the three F&I products that other Fit buyers in the same demographic most often buy, Dyke said. It will rank them, price them and the customer can add them to a shopping cart right then.
Market watchers are unsure whether Sonic's investment will pay off. Archambault of Goldman Sachs downgraded Sonic to a "sell" rating last month. But he said that he'd become more positive if Sonic demonstrates gains in market share and gross margins as it launches its customer experience initiative and used-car stores.
While the top dealership groups are all trying to reduce transaction time, Sonic is investing most aggressively in it, said Rick Nelson, an analyst with Stephens Inc. in Chicago who has covered the public retailers since they began to form in the late 1990s and rates Sonic a "hold."
"It's tapering their growth, but if they're successful executing, there's potential for outsized growth in 2016 and 2017," Nelson said. "They have their hands full, but they do have a longer-term focus."
Sonic's leaders agree. O. Bruton Smith, Sonic's CEO, has controlling interest in the company. Said Scott Smith: "Nobody has a bigger stake in the success of this than the Smith family."