Digital auto retailing is getting more personal.
That’s a good thing, because online shoppers like the “human” touch, even if it comes from non-human software.
So say automotive panelists speaking during a Reuters webinar titled “Surprising the customer in the decade of transformation.”
Digital personalization, or the systematic ability to use artificial intelligence to individually meet and respond to online car shoppers, “used to be operationally expensive,” but today “the barriers are getting lower,” says panelist Alain Nana- Sinkam, a senior vice president at TrueCar, an online automotive marketplace that connects sellers and buyers.
Advances in digital marketing make this one of the “most exciting times in automotive history,” says Brian Kramer, executive vice president of Cars.com, a leading third-party provider to auto dealers.
In apparent AI irony, he adds: “New technology will bring back the humanity of interaction.”
Sensing customer wants and needs is vital to a car sale, whether it’s done in-store or online using sophisticated software systems, webinar participants say.
With modern technology, “the pace of learning, the time it takes to get to know the customer, can happen very quickly now,” says Wendy Bauer, general manager of AWS Automotive, a data/digital unit of online retail giant Amazon. . “The pace of innovation is incredible.”
Digital retailing “is a whole new ball game” as technology advances and more internet-dependent youth enter the auto market, says Amira Aly, director of financial services at Lucid Motors, an electric vehicle startup.
She sees “great opportunities” to harness AI to improve the online car-buying experience. One of them is a chat feature that anticipates buyers’ questions, says Aly. “I don’t have to think it through because (chat technology) is guiding me. This is how you delight the customer. That is in the future.”
A TrueCar survey indicates that 62% of car consumers surveyed say they would consider a full online shopping experience.
Of that group, 81% who say they are willing to “pay more for a superior experience” plan to buy their next car online, Nana-Sinkam says. “It’s like some consumers paying an extra $40 to get on a plane first.”
Bauer advocates for a digital car buying process that gives users choice, convenience, flexibility and control. “There are many benefits when you give them.”
As advanced as digital auto retailing has become, webinar participants do not anticipate that it will eventually replace shopping at the dealership.
“There is a happy medium,” says Aly. “You can’t discount what dealers have done, from offering test drives to being there to talk about the product.”
He advocates the current hybrid model that combines online and face-to-face purchases. “If online was so well, we wouldn’t have studios, which is what Lucid calls their dealerships,” she says.
Adds Nana-Sinkam, referring to the well-trained showroom staff: “You always need an expert who can demystify the process.”
Kramer says of his personal car buying: “I still trust dealers. A lot of dealers do a fantastic job, with or without customers coming in.”
He says the statistical research debunks some preconceived notions, including his own, such as the idea that people won’t buy a vehicle without first trying it out. “I thought that was true, but that was before I saw the data,” says Kramer. “The fact is some car buyers don’t want a test drive.”
Car buyers used to follow a step-by-step car buying process. Not anymore. Not in the digital age.
“One of the biggest changes is that the path to a car sale is no longer linear,” says Nana-Sinkam. “There needs to be flexibility for consumers who want to start in different ways.”