"We have to offer customers another way in," Ford of Europe general manager of passenger vehicles, Roelant de Waard, told Automotive News Europe. "It's all about not prescribing how you want your customers to behave."
Joining Ford is the Volkswagen brand, which is rolling out a new information technology system to coincide with the launch of its ID family of EVs. That launch incorporates online sales as part of VW's wider shake-up of its relationship with its dealers and customers.
PSA Group CEO Carlos Tavares told investors in February that he wants online sales within the group to increase to 100,000 by 2021 from 6,000 in 2018. And across Europe, automakers such as Hyundai, Volvo, Alpine, Jaguar Land Rover, Mitsubishi, BMW and Mini are operating digital sales programs or pilots in selected markets.
Zhejiang Geely Holding Group subsidiary Lynk & CO, meanwhile, promises to launch next year in Europe with a strategy that predominately relies on online sales.
Dealers are gearing up for the change. In the U.K., Europe's second-largest market and the test country for many automakers' online sales programs, 60 percent of dealers say they will have the ability to offer digital transactions within two years, according to a study by Cox Automotive. "It will be the normal way of selling in 10 or 20 years, no question," said Marion David, product director at PSA's high-end DS Automobiles brand.
Car buyers are already online. Ford's research shows that its European customers visit a dealership just 1.2 times while buying a vehicle, with much of the decision-making informed by digital research. Automakers have long catered to that trend by developing increasingly sophisticated online configurators, allowing customers to create a virtual version of their ideal vehicle while seeing how each change will affect the price.
But that's where it stops — or in VW parlance, where the link is broken.
"In the future, we will try to avoid these break points," said Jürgen Stackmann, Volkswagen brand head of sales, marketing and aftersales.
Now, a customer's online journey is largely invisible to VW. Car buyers don't emerge until they send a link containing the details of their configured vehicle to their nearest dealer. The system proposed by VW gives customers an ID number to make themselves known to the VW dealer network, and to VW itself. That change will not only enable online purchasing, but it permits any interaction the customer has, whether servicing reminders or an email complaint to a dealer, to be recorded onto that customer ID.
"This way everyone who needs to know, knows who he is and what he needs. It has a total ecosystem advantage," Stackmann said.
VW might be creating the ID link, but having it will be to the dealers' advantage, the automaker believes.
"The dealers realize the future of customer connection is within our system, not within each dealer. They can't create a journey for a customer on their own," Stackmann said.
But dealers will remain a key element. The move to embrace online sales is not the same as moving to direct sales, automakers here point out.
"They are the face of the brand to the customer," Stackmann said of retailers. "They help when things go wrong. We can't pretend everything we do is perfect."
The online sales model that automakers are largely adopting calls for Internet orders to be fulfilled by the dealer that the customer chooses, which is most likely the nearest store.
But it is about more than picking up a vehicle, said Matt Harrison, head of sales and marketing for Toyota Motor Europe.
"The purchase is just the first part of the journey," he said. "It's important we look after them through the ownership of what are increasingly high-tech cars. Our retail partners are central to that relationship."
Toyota has a pilot online sales program in the U.K. and Norway as part of a plan to open online sales "across a number of markets" within the next few years. But first, the company is gathering information.
"We have learned it's not as straightforward as putting a payment form on your website," Har- rison said.
In Norway, Toyota's online operation has focused on the Aygo minicar, and has generated some interesting findings. The first was that Toyota gained a lot of conquest sales from other brands through the sales process. Second, Toyota learned that offering lease finance was the key to success.
In Norway, leasing has gained popularity alongside EV sales growth, perhaps in response to nervousness about the residual values of battery-powered vehicles.
"It's possible there is some shift away from ownership because of that," Harrison said. The younger age of EV demographics also may have been an influence.