So far, Amazon has not upended auto retail the way it has countless other consumer goods sectors and shopping in general.
But its model provides inspiration for at least one potential disrupter. Shift, a used-vehicle e-commerce company with most of its operations on the U.S. West Coast, plans to go public sometime this quarter. Although it views itself as a disrupter to traditional brick-and-mortar car-shopping, the company would also like to eventually supply a platform that could help dealers — kind of like what Amazon has done in retail, co-CEO Toby Russell said.
Russell explains it like this: In the earlier days of Amazon, a majority of the goods traded on the platform were being sold by Amazon. Now, a bulk of what's sold there is from third parties.
"We see a long-term vision for Shift of being able to do that," Russell said. "Think [of] a small dealership that says, 'Hey, I'm not going to build my own website. I'm not going to build my own iPad app. And I'm not going to be able to do the transaction the way Shift does. But I can use Shift software to do that.'"
But before that day comes, the traditional model of buying and selling used vehicles needs to transition further into what companies such as Shift see as an inevitable, digital future. It's a destiny that, in hindsight, will seem obvious, Russell said.
In 2007, Russell founded an on-demand taxi service built with a Java app for BlackBerry called Taxi Magic. "And a lot of people then were saying, 'Yeah, people are never going to use a cellphone to order a taxi,'" he said.
Of course, the naysayers were wrong about the ride-hailing concept, which has since been embraced by consumers the world over and has turned into a multibillion-dollar industry by companies such as Uber and Lyft.
"Exactly the same thing is going to happen in auto" retail, Russell said. "We're going to look back and say, 'Well, of course I buy my car online.'"