Though walls and locked doors still are considered the sure-fire way to keep customer data safe today, manufacturers and some automotive retailers are exploring ways to move the finance and insurance part of the sales transaction outside the traditional F&I "box."
Right now, the F&I process is regulated activity, and "it has to go on in a private office," said Bill Hartman, principal and design director at architectural firm Gensler, which helps automakers develop dealership designs.
But "in the digital world, there are new ways to keep things secured that don't involve a door with a lock," Hartman said. "And if it doesn't involve a door with a lock, maybe it doesn't involve a wall."
Even closed offices can produce breaches if important paperwork is left out on desktops, where other staffers or the cleaning crew could see customer information, he said. Might computer files with passwords be a more secure approach? That could allow the F&I part of the transaction to happen with open doors or even in an open showroom, Hartman said.
The dealership designs being built now were planned several years ago. Today, Gensler is "exploring with manufacturers new approaches that may not resemble the solutions of the past," Hartman said.
He declined to say which manufacturers or elaborate on the kinds of approaches being pursued. But the motivation is improving the customer experience, Hartman said.
While many dealers won't want to be the pioneers in getting rid of the physical F&I office, some already are experimenting with a more open-air environment.
Sonic Automotive Inc., for instance, is completing transactions using iPads at its stores in Charlotte, N.C., where the dealership group is implementing its new customer experience program. Customers sit in the showroom with a sales associate who takes them through the entire transaction on the iPad. Most documents are signed electronically, though some still have to be signed on paper. F&I managers and document specialists are on hand to assist.