Back in the mid-1990s, I bought my first new car. It was a personal triumph — after years of driving used cars that kept breaking down. The purchase also marked my first experience with anything close to online car-shopping.
In a move that was tech savvy at the time, I sat down at my fancy home PC and used CompuServe and a dial-up modem to go online and do some research. The World Wide Web was in its early years, the interface was plain text, and, of course, there was no dealership website. But I managed to find some pricing information on the model I wanted, which I sent to my dot-matrix printer. I wanted to go to the showroom armed with all the information I could find.
Fast-forward 26 years. I checked online recently and was pleased to see the suburban Philadelphia dealership that sold me the car not only is still in business, but it is keeping up with changing times.
At the bottom of its website is a little talk-bubble icon that invites the visitor to “send us a text” or “chat with us.” There’s another live-chat invitation to the left, featuring a smiling sales representative. But what really stood out was another feature on the site: a “buy online” button.
I bet that if I were in the market today, far beyond just looking up vehicle prices online, I would have clicked on that button, lured by the prospect of handling most if not all of the purchase — even finance and insurance arrangements — from my home office. Perhaps I would have gone into a physical store for a test drive, but with some dealerships, you even can do that from home.
Of course, we do lose something when we go digital. I really liked my salesperson from 26 years ago. She helped teach me how to drive a stick shift as we were awaiting delivery of the car. Hugs were exchanged when the vehicle finally came in and I arrived to drive it home.
But as one dealer said in a recent Shift panel discussion: The genie is out of the bottle. We can’t expect a full return to the old way of doing business.
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t create this move to online retailing, but it certainly has sped it up.
The pandemic has combined with other challenges facing retailers, including an inventory shortage stemming from the chip crisis and the move toward a more electrified future, forcing car sellers to adapt.
It’s not just in the way they sell vehicles, which we explore in this issue of Shift. As a recent Cox Automotive study found, it’s also in the way they relate to workers, how they use data and how they handle the service experience.
With the help of technology, the retail world has adjusted quickly, and many dealers, despite the challenges, are finding a way to thrive.