Auto retail experts offer insights on navigating changing times


In an Aug. 18 virtual event titled “The Thriving Dealership: Now and for the Future,” sponsored by Cox Automotive, Shift convened a panel of retailing experts to share insights. Here are excerpts.

Digital retailing

“Something that actually even surprised me was that, even as the pandemic wound down, we thought our digital retailing engagement would drop with it. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. It continues to grow and get stronger and stronger. … I think the biggest part of it truly is convenience. And then the part that’s hard to measure is control because consumers feel like they have more control of the buying process, something that we’ve always jealously guarded ourselves as dealers. But when we have released some of that control, we’ve been rewarded because they are willing to pay gross in return.” — Kevin Frye, eCommerce director, Jeff Wyler Automotive Family

“I want to be careful to point out that we’re in a step-by-step methodology. First was granting the consumer the right to be able to use a website, and live interaction to move them. Not unlike your checking account, they feel comfortable with it today. So we’re kind of in that phase, coming into the second phase of the pandemic, it’s not a big deal for a customer, I think. … We’re seeing 15 to 20 percent now that really do want to choose to work that way. Now, to be careful, that still leaves 80 percent that is not. So we have to be careful if we try to go down that path.” — Joe Negri, executive director, advertising and marketing, Mike Maroone Automotive Group

“COVID might be gone down the road. But we have taken the genie out of the bottle. Once the customer has experienced a new way of buying, whether it be through one of the so-called disrupters or one of us, they aren’t going to go back, even if all of these other reasons for buying online have changed down the road. So the genie is out of the bottle, and we’ve got to switch our mindset from it being a lead provider to an online purchase.” — Liza Borches, CEO, Carter Myers Automotive

Frye: “I want to challenge dealers: Our website experience, that model is really about 20 years old and it’s about converting people into filling out a form. And what we’ve seen the last few years is that conversion rate has dropped little by little each year to its lowest point in history. And so what we decided to do was remove the forms from our website wherever possible and have those calls to action point directly to live chat. And we’re doing a hybrid where our chat provider will answer immediately with AI, try to screen out any initial questions. But if we identify an active shopper, it’s going to go directly to one of our trained sales professionals at the dealership to handle the chat.”

“In Q4 of last year we did a study at Cox Auto that found that 49 percent of dealers were going to go away from digital retailing after things got back to ‘normal.’ I think it’s all new; I don’t think there’s a new normal anymore. … Based on what we know about today’s digital consumer, I think the biggest difference is, for the thriving dealerships, they just have that mindset and that progressive mentality.” — Chase Abbott, vice president of sales, dealer software solutions, Cox Automotive

Frye: “We need to be thinking about EVs. Right now I think the mentality is the Field of Dreams: If we build them, they will come to buy them. Well, dealers are going to be in the front line of this battle. And it’s very important that we start building really strong partnerships with our OEMs on not only how to sell these EVs, but how to service and support them in the future.”

Borches: “Our advantage on the retail side of this business is for us to embrace technology, but wrap it with the relationship. We have seen how fast technology can change, and that’s going to continue. And we need to keep challenging ourselves to say where in our process do we need the relationship and do we need the people. Put them in there as strong as we possibly can and then wrap it with technology in the places that we can become more efficient.”

Negri: “I think the biggest key for any of us — certainly was in 2021 and 2020 — is the ability to adapt quickly. So your business processes, how your process changes, can be instituted on a Monday and you expect them to be in the pipeline and be effective on Tuesday. I think that’s going to be huge.”

“I think the best advice I could give for the future is to own your social media. No matter what changes. No matter if we see another pandemic, hopefully not. With EVs, with any changes we see, your fastest way to connect to your customers is through your social media.” — Jeffrey Ramsey, e-commerce and marketing director, Jones Junction Auto Group
Borches: “There is major conversation, more than conversation, in this country about how transportation is the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. We need to be a part of the solution. We need to have a seat at that table and continue to help. Not just EVs, but how do we as an industry have a more sustainable footprint?”

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