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Digital retailing grabs automakers’ attention

Automakers have begun to view online retailing as an important tool that dealers should be using alongside dealership management systems and customer relationship management software.

Digital vendors say automakers’ interest is growing as everything from books to shoes and, increasingly, cars and trucks are being bought online. Some dealers have pushed for automakers to get more involved as consumers increasingly seek a seamless online shopping experience.

A program Toyota plans to launch this summer indicates that some are listening. Dealership enrolment for the initiative, called the Toyota Dealer Digital Solutions Certified Website Program, began in March, Josh Hoffmann, senior manager of dealer digital marketing at Toyota Motor North America, wrote in an email.

“The program is designed to better meet dealer needs while simultaneously focusing on evolving consumer behaviors and expectations,” Hoffmann said. Certified categories will include chat and text, trade-in evaluation, service appointment schedulers, video creation providers and digital retailing platforms. Dealerships will have eight certified website providers and dozens of certified third-party tool providers to select from, Hoffmann said.

Roadster is among the digital retailing vendors Toyota certified for the program. Roadster officials said the company also is now an approved Mercedes-Benz digital retailing vendor, as it is for Audi, Hyundai and Lexus. A spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to certifying vendors to help dealers solve the digital retailing puzzle, automakers have launched their own programs. Hyundai in 2018 rolled out Shopper Assurance nationwide. It has four elements: transparent pricing, flexible test drives, online transaction processing and a three-day money-back guarantee. Hyundai Motor America marketing chief Dean Evans said this year that not all Hyundai dealers were participating in the voluntary program, but most had adopted it.
Money on table

Automakers traditionally have certified vendors offering products such as customer relationship management software and dealership management systems, and they have provided incentives for their dealers to use those vendors.

Now automakers are sometimes putting money on the table for dealers in digital retailing — by offering reimbursement programs, for instance, or contributing money to dealer network co-op pools. The incentives are a way for automakers to maintain brand integrity and ensure their dealers are working with vendors that the factories have vetted.

The rise in digital retailing vendor certifications is a boon for Roadster, which provides a branded suite of products including a digital storefront, or transactional dealership website. Roadster works with more than 600 dealers representing more than 30 brands. Its tools support omnichannel retail, which refers to a seamless buying experience from the point a customer is shopping online using a computer or mobile device through the customer’s visit to the dealership.

Cox Automotive’s Dealer.com, a longtime dealership website provider that has introduced its own digital retailing tools, is certified with 28 automaker brand programs. It began with the Chrysler brand in 2008, when automakers approached franchised dealership websites differently from today.

Leading up to that era, there were “tons of different agencies and technology players,” and the look and feel of the Internet and dealer networks for all the brands varied greatly, said Andy MacLeay, Dealer.com’s director of digital marketing. Some dealership websites would bear very small automaker logos and very large personal branding, for example.

“All those brand standards and kind of the ability to search for cars — it was all over the place,” MacLeay said. “It was sort of dependent on the vendor or the way the dealership wanted to position themselves or perhaps maybe the Tier 1 agency at the OEM.”

Automakers saw the need for more uniformity and started certifying digital platform vendors accordingly.

Latest shift

The more recent shift into recognizing the need for digital retailing platforms began about four or five years ago, MacLeay said, as the pace of consumers making online purchases of all kinds picked up speed.

Still, the complexity of retailing vehicles online must be considered. And the fully digital transaction remains elusive.

“You’re not buying a pair of shoes,” MacLeay said. Vehicles are large, complex purchases that involve factors such as trade-ins and financing. This means it involves more than just an automaker providing a digital retailing platform — it requires participation at the dealership level, too, he said.

CarNow, another vendor certified by Toyota’s new program, got its start about five years ago with a live messaging service for dealership websites called MessageNow, a name that continues to denote the product. That product grew rapidly, and CarNow has since expanded into an end-to-end digital platform for dealership websites.

“We always knew that the ultimate goal was putting the selling workflow of buying a car on top of that” messaging service, said Aaron Baldwin, CarNow’s senior vice president of business development.

CarNow was certified for digital retailing with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles across its brands about two years ago. In addition to Toyota, it has added Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Kia, Porsche, Audi and Subaru. Baldwin said interest from manufacturers has been growing rapidly.

“It’s really been a major influx, I’d say, over the last six months,” he said.

While automotive digital retailing is still in “the bottom of the first” inning, there’s not a lot of pushback from dealers anymore, said Craig Nehamen, COO of used-vehicle leasing subscription company Fair.

“If customers want it and dealers want it, it’s going to happen,” Nehamen said. “It’s in your hands, and it’s in finance sources’ hands and OEMs’ hands to give [customers] the tools.”

Source: Automotive News

Cox Automotive