While several automakers and dealer vendors quickly ramped up their digital retailing efforts as COVID-19 struck the U.S. industry early last year, their approaches differed greatly, as did the depth of their penetration into a purchase transaction. Some work more as internal lead generators, others expedite finance applications or allow cross-shopping between dealerships.
Toyota's approach is very dealer-centric, explains Tim Bliss, general manager for retail transformation at Toyota Motor North America and the man leading the in-house development of SmartPath. One example: A prospective buyer can look at the inventory of only one dealer at a time.
"The biggest piece to really get this up and running was building that real-time inventory integration with the dealer's DMS system, and that's really the key to the whole platform," Bliss explained. Pricing, incentives and availability update automatically.
When a consumer looking for a new Toyota lands on one of the web pages, they are asked to input a ZIP code and then are offered a choice of area dealerships. With SmartPath enabled, the consumer can browse or search the new-vehicle inventory, and if they find something they like, they can begin the purchase process: choosing whether to lease or buy, finalizing incentives and shopping for accessories.
The consumer is asked whether they have a trade-in, and if they do, they're given a KBB.com-generated value for the trade. If they accept the offer, any equity is integrated into the new vehicle payment.
The online purchaser is then moved into the virtual F&I office, where they can apply for and receive an immediate credit decision through Toyota Financial Services, or they can indicate whether they have outside financing or will be paying with cash. They're also offered a menu of available warranties and protections through Toyota Financial, the cost of which is immediately baked into the monthly payment. If everything is a go, the customer can finalize the deal and then is contacted by the dealership to schedule delivery and sign the purchase or lease contract.
As with the earlier versions of SmartPath, consumers can save their work at any point, and if they visit the dealership, all of their information and earlier work is immediately visible to dealership personnel. Contacting the dealership, either by phone or video call or in person, allows the consumer to haggle if they desire.
In the beta test at Wilson Toyota, General Sales Manager Josh Holz says the customer is handed an iPad in the dealership and offered as much — or as little — assistance as they require.
"The beauty of it is, when they walk in our dealership, we can hand them an iPad or a tablet, and we just say, 'You're in control. You drive this process. What do you want to do, and how do you want to do this?' And that really becomes a different type of interaction," Holz explained. "People are more comfortable with it, and as they experience it, they tell their friends how easy the whole process is."
For dealers operating what might be considered traditional business development centers — cold calling, chasing down Internet leads, etc. — the upgraded SmartPath functionality enables workers there to act as online guides for shoppers, helping them down the purchase path, Hollis said.
"The BDC becomes more of the customer concierge instead of just an appointment-setter," Hollis said. "You would think that the process would be 'less touch' with the online piece, but what dealers are telling us is that it's more 'high touch' " because there is a dedicated team to help those shopping online.