Rick Ricart, president of Ricart Automotive Group in Columbus, Ohio, knows about selling electric vehicles. He's been doing so for a decade.
His dealership group has been designated an official Electrified Dealer by Smart Columbus, a smart-city initiative.
Ricart, 42, discussed the program, selling EVs and the digital retailing trend with Contributor Sebastian Blanco. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Ricart Automotive Group was certified as an Electrified Dealer. What does that mean?
a: It means that a customer shopping for electric vehicles in Columbus could work with dealerships that are well informed about electric vehicles to make it easier to make that transition. And then to be able to talk about, what does range anxiety mean, what does it really look like? To be able to have sales staff who are go-to experts on those electric vehicle questions.
Because, of course, there's information on the Internet. People can go research that way. But if you are truly in the market, being able to talk to an individual who's an expert within your own city, I think, makes a big difference in the consumer's mind and allows them to feel more secure and trusted in their electric vehicle purchase.
Q: How many electric or plug-in HYBRID vehicles has Ricart sold?
a: I don't know what the total unit count is. We began 10 years ago when the Nissan Leaf first came to market, and as we have seen more products come to market, the number slowly increased. I think 2020 was kind of the first year that it's worth keeping track of those numbers because for most of that time, we were dealing with 1 or 2 percent of all new vehicles sold in the state were EV or PHEV. I know that number has grown closer to 4 or 5 percent now. In my personal opinion, we are just now seeing products from the manufacturers that are truly what the consumers want.
Q: What needs to be done to boost EV sales?
a: I think first and foremost, it's the product itself. As these vehicles go from the hundred-mile range to 200, and now we see vehicles on our lot with 300- to 400-mile ranges, I think that's what's really making people open their eyes.
I also believe change starts internally. I myself actually did the official switch this week from a gas pickup truck to an all-electric Mustang Mach-E, and we encourage our employees to drive EVs. That's one of the reasons we put in a lot of charging stations, so that our employees could feel comfortable buying one and be able to plug them in and charge them while they're at work.
Ownership is always the best education. The more we can encourage them to drive them home, test drive them, that way, they're communicating with each other all day; they're sharing those experiences, and it makes it a more authentic communication when they do address the consumer.
Q: What digital strategies worked to sell vehicles before the pandemic?
a: We had an opportunity almost four years ago to become an early dealer partner with a company called AutoFi. AutoFi had a product that we use called Express Checkout, and, luckily, we began the advertising of "we can come to you" even before the pandemic started. So our team already had some experience doing online, remote sales, and by the time the pandemic hit, having that tool in place and having a staff that was trained and understood that has helped us greatly. We try to have everything available online. We have chat features, and they can call us. The next level is videoconferencing and FaceTime.
That is all a big help also because we can have someone who's at home or in their office who really wants to do everything virtually, and then we offer to deliver to them at their home, their office or a neutral site.
Q: What about in-person transactions?
a: For the consumer that does feel comfortable coming in, but still would like to expedite the purchase, we encourage them to do as much online as they can.
That way, when they do come to the store, it really becomes an experience that has to do with just verifying the car. As long as the car checks out, everything else is done, and we can concentrate on celebrating taking delivery. That is one of the shining lights that'll come out of the whole COVID pandemic. Car dealers were forced to adapt quickly, and consumers now have better purchasing options than they ever have.
Q: Do you think shoppers will want to keep doing more digitally?
a: I think you're going to see that blend continue, and I think we're going to slowly see more and more people do things online and spend less time in the store. If that's 35 percent of people today, I think it'll be 60 percent within two years.