The advancement of digital retailing will be a great opportunity for dealerships to tailor the customer experience and keep up with online upstarts such as Carvana, a panel of dealers said Friday.
But dealerships also will have to balance technology with the human touch that has long defined the guest experience, they said during the Automotive News Retail Forum: NADA.
The opportunities are vast, panelists said: Virtual reality. Online transactions. Vehicle pickup and delivery. And they stem from a digital transformation that has made it easy to buy virtually anything from a cellphone, said Erich Gail, CEO of Cardinale Group of Cos.
"We can filter our lives to give me what I want and give it to me right now," Gail said. "When we run into a retail experience that doesn't provide that, we're just going to go somewhere else that does."
Consumers today want a personalized experience, several panelists said, pointing out the need to provide multiple avenues in the sales process that might cater to a shopper who is comfortable buying online and to someone who is more comfortable speaking to a sales rep in a showroom.
"You're going to sell and service 18-year-olds, and you're going to sell and service 88-year-olds, and you really have to meet them on their terms and be fast and efficient and transparent," said David Hult, CEO of Asbury Automotive Group. "So that's where software can help. But you really have to start internally with the folks that you're hiring. How are you training them and setting that philosophy to really align to deliver that level of service?"
To that end, Hult said, transforming the guest experience has to start from within the organization before it can be delivered externally to customers. That starts with building a culture and setting up job descriptions that fit with the goal the retailer is trying to achieve.
A digital retail world also could alleviate some recruiting challenges dealerships face if job descriptions are adapted to de-emphasize the sales role, Gail said.
"When you change the word 'sales associate' to 'genius' or 'product specialist,' all of the sudden, here comes the resumes," he said.
Yet the transition is still ongoing and, at times, bumpy, panelists said.
One hang-up is in valuing trades, Gail said. If the value is not what a buyer entered online, the dealership has to change the paperwork. That process could be sped up if it could be done digitally on a tablet in a customer's driveway during a walkaround, he added.
Abigail Kampmann, CEO of Principle Auto, said her group tried an online shopping experience at some stores but stopped when it didn't gain much traction. Her stores in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi face regulations that prevent a full, end-to-end online transaction, she said.
"We have a partner now that when we want to turn it on, we can," Kampmann said. "You can't do it all 100 percent online, and so until that happens, we're not going to turn that on unless all of our competition around us tries to go that way."