With Carl Liebert on board, AutoNation Inc. may truly make its pivot to digital retail.
Liebert, incoming CEO of AutoNation, learned as division president for electronics retailer Circuit City that without digital retail, a company can quickly become irrelevant.
Circuit City liquidated its U.S. stores in 2009. The difference between Circuit City and Best Buy, its biggest competitor? Best Buy had an online shopping cart and Circuit City didn’t, Liebert said.
There was an “understanding that the Internet was going to change everything and that 80 percent of the customers walking in the store already knew what they wanted,” Liebert said. “How do you make it easier for them to shop? Best Buy had already figured that out.”
It’s difficult to evolve a company that’s been successful, Liebert said, but that experience taught him to determine when to pivot.
For companies to succeed amid retail’s digital evolution, they must understand “the ripples in the pool before they become waves,” Liebert said.
Since 2013, Liebert has spearheaded the development of the digital platform at financial services company USAA. And as he becomes CEO of the largest U.S. new-vehicle retailer next month, developing a digital F&I platform likely will be on his to-do list.
AutoNation has linked with at least two digital companies in the past five months. In November, it partnered with Fair, a used-vehicle leasing subscription service. In October, it invested $50 million in Vroom, an online used-vehicle retailer.
In 2014, AutoNation launched an online car-buying platform, AutoNation Express. About a year ago, four years after the launch, executives said AutoNation customers still couldn't complete a transaction online, but the company was testing remote signing for some paperwork. Consumers could reserve a vehicle through the website and calculate monthly payments based on a credit score they entered.
In the dealership, Liebert said, a positive F&I experience is vital because it’s often the last piece of the transaction customers remember.
AutoNation’s digital F&I component, if it takes shape, will likely be part of a broader data-powered digital platform.
“As you start to think of technology and what it can be, you really want to be delighted. You really want to drive your vehicle; you want to use your vehicle. How you got your vehicle is not what you care about. You just don’t want to have friction into that process," Liebert said. "That’s where I think the digital and data process … it has to go all the way across. It can’t just be … how do we sell more vehicles because we’ll miss out on probably the most important service experience that our customers care about.”
Liebert describes the shift to digital -- quoting writer Ernest Hemingway -- as “gradually and then suddenly.”
With Liebert at the helm, expect AutoNation to be prepared.