The coronavirus forced auto retailers to do more business outside dealership walls.
Customers finished parts of the transaction online or signed paperwork in parking lots or their driveways. Employees brought vehicles to customers' homes for test drives and delivery and also picked up their vehicles for service. Some dealership leaders are talking about how to make the online-to-in-store transition even smoother once the pandemic is over — actions that could speed up a transaction, meaning customers will spend less time inside a dealership.
All of that raises new questions about the fate of brick-and-mortar stores.
I wrote this week about the future of dealership facilities, exploring how showroom designs might evolve to accommodate the shift toward digital retailing. The structure of automakers' image programs was a contentious topic for long before the pandemic. Dealers say the requirements can be expensive and onerous, while factory leaders see the investment as a way to improve brand image with customers and boost sales.
The pandemic threw a curveball in that debate, as customers' shopping habits moved even more online than before. Dealers now say the speed of that shift will require automakers to be more flexible to keep pace with changing consumer trends.
"When they try to be too prescriptive and say this is a cookie-cutter approach, and we want you to do A, B, C and D and only A, B, C and D, it just doesn't work," Ohio dealer Bernie Moreno told me. "The box needs to be big enough that dealers can create some really interesting, creative things."
Could the idea of thinking outside the box while working within one be a way to meet in the middle? Whether and how facility designs change to meet digital demands will play out long term, but dealers say they're starting to plant the seeds.