One of Cole's brands, Nissan, this year launched [email protected] for consumers to browse, schedule a test drive or start a purchase online. Dan Mohnke, Nissan's U.S. vice president of eCommerce, said about one-third of the brand's 1,074 U.S. dealerships have signed up, and Nissan plans an advertising campaign for it this year.
Cole isn't sure whether he will sign up, but if Nissan puts a lot of money behind it, he doesn't want to miss out on prospective buyers by keeping his stores out of the pool.
"I don't think it's right what they're doing," Cole said, "but it's almost like they're forcing our hands."
Taking a restrictive approach with [email protected] wouldn't get dealers on board, Mohnke said, so the platform integrates with at least 60 lenders and allows dealers to control what inventory, pricing and F&I products they feature.
It's designed to bring more consistency and value to the dealership network, he said.
"We don't believe that we're ever going to get 100 percent of the dealers on the platform," Mohnke said. "We respect that dealers can make their own choice on this. But we do think that success is to get a majority of the dealers on the platform because then it does become a brand differentiation."
Automakers' desire for a consistent brand experience exists online just as it does in the showroom, said Brian Pasch, a consultant who works with dealerships on digital retailing. Yet flexibility is needed to win over dealers who worry about not being able to find a customer the best possible interest rate or who might be hesitant to speak up because they fear repercussions from the factory, Pasch said.
"The OEMs always have their carrot and stick," he said. "In this particular case, I think it's a bigger vision that they want to make sure that the car-buying experience, if more and more of it's going to be online, that it's consistent."
Ford Motor Co. is testing a digital transaction tool, Ford Express Buy, with the Mustang Mach-E electric crossover. Kumar Galhotra, Ford's president of the Americas and International Markets Group, has said it won't be mandatory for dealers as it rolls out to more models.
"What I've learned over the years: Us and our distribution network are part of the broader enterprise," Galhotra told Automotive News in May. "It's very difficult, and I'd say not appropriate, to force these things."
The desire for consistency extends to dealership groups, as well.
Germain Motor Co. promotes its internal brand, Germain to You, with virtual buying options across all of its franchises in Ohio, Michigan and Florida, COO John Malishenko said. It currently doesn't use any automaker-developed online sales platforms.
A uniform tool from an automaker has to accommodate a spectrum from single-point stores to large metropolitan groups, and as such is often difficult to customize, Malishenko said.
"We don't really work with any companies that don't give us the freedom to customize the tool to suit our situation," he said. "A Ford store in Dayton, Ohio, versus an Audi or Porsche store in Ann Arbor, [Mich.,] or a BMW store in Naples, Fla. — those are very different markets, very different customers with very different ideas of what they want."