Car retailing goes digital, and there’s no turning back

Like model-year changes, the car business’s move into e-commerce was largely incremental: a beefed-up website one year, a social media campaign the next.

Then COVID-19-related restrictions sealed the showrooms and sent manufacturers and dealers rushing to find ways to connect with customers.

“We learned at Nissan – if we didn’t innovate in the last year, we would have been in trouble,” Nissan Canada marketing director Adam Paterson told an Automotive News Canada Conversations panel discussion on digital retailing.

For Nissan, the solution was the Studio virtual showroom in which car shoppers get personal tours of new models, speak to agents and, if they wish, can be transferred to a dealer to talk pricing and trade-in value.

The online showroom had already been under discussion, Paterson, told the panel moderated by Automotive News Canada Publisher Tim Dimopoulos.

But the cancellation of auto shows in the pandemic freed up the resources to make it happen – and it won’t be going away.

“It’s something that we are completely invested in now as part of our full marketing infrastructure,” he said.

From live websites like Nissan’s to online test-drive booking forms and the acceptance of electronic signatures on purchase documents, the industry’s pandemic-hastened embrace of e-commerce has shown that remote selling is possible – and for many dealers, profitable.

Retailers “were able to look at the efficiency of their sales costs and in some cases reduce the number of salespeople, especially with lower inventory,” said panel member Alexander Lvovich, chief strategy officer with Toronto-based software provider Motoinsight.

“I think coming out of the pandemic, I’m sure all the parties will want to stay as efficient as they have been for the last 12 to 18 months.”

Doubts over customer acceptance were quickly erased, the session heard.

“The one thing we have noticed, and we’re quite surprised by, is customers’ willingness to adapt as we make different processes available and as we modify them,” said Francesco Policaro, CEO of Policaro Group, a southern Ontario luxury brand retailer.

Still, many consumers want the personal touch. Even through the restrictions of the pandemic, customers have been eager to see vehicles first-hand and engage with dealership staff, Policaro said.

Consumer expectations, however, have been shaped by the wider boom in online retail, the panel heard. Cars may be far more expensive than other Internet purchases, said Paterson, “but I think the only thing many of our customers feel is more valuable than their money is their time.”

Buyers will choose the brands that most respect that and let them make transactions on their own terms, he added. Volvo Car Canada Managing Director Matt Girgis said the largest benefit of digitalization for all participants could be the window it opens to the customer’s wants and needs.

“The more insights you can gather and the better you can personalize their experience, the better product you can provide for them.”

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