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Online Car-Buying is Here to Stay. Is Your Dealership On-Board?

Updated: Mar 21

By Matt Hayward

Until recently, a 100% online sales process was something only the most progressive dealers were touting. Many consumers were left wishing for progress in an industry that often resists change. Today, change is mandatory.

To be sure, indicators have been suggesting for some time that vehicle purchasing preferences were shifting online. We already knew that customers expect to buy almost anything with the tap of a finger or click of a mouse. We already knew that customers are spending many hours online researching vehicles, pricing, financing, etc., only to end up in the dealership; often for a long time. We were already seeing the emerging initial disruptors like Carvana, whose promise of a different way to buy a vehicle has resonated with consumers. But for most car dealers, 100% online buying remained at best a novelty and at worst an inconvenient future reality to be dealt with later. That dynamic has changed, and the genie’s not going back into the bottle.

Once COVID-19 arrived, a 100% online sales process with remote test drives, trades, financing, delivery etc. became a necessity in many markets. Per Forbes, a recent study by Capgemini found that 64% of car buyers now prefer to complete the entire vehicle transaction online, up from 39% before COVID-19. Another recent study by Autotrader found that 67% of shoppers are now more likely to buy their vehicle 100% online and that this number, in Autotrader’s words, “…is accelerating exponentially.”

Hopefully it’s clear by now that if you aren’t currently offering a 100% online sales process at your dealership or group, you’re falling behind. Luckily there are plenty of options out there, and you still have time to evolve your business. Companies like (in no particular order) AutoFi, WebBuy and Roadster, just to name a few, all offer platforms that facilitate 100% online car-buying. There are many others. If you don’t have an automotive marketing agency to help you make this decision, I recommend you reach out to one. An agency’s unbiased opinion and experience in dealing with multiple vendors across various clients will prove valuable in choosing the right vendor for your needs.

Once you’ve found the right online sales partner, and they’ve set up & tied in with your website, make sure the process is seamless and that your entire team is on-board. For online buying to work best, everyone needs to understand it and actively engage with it. This can’t be treated as a one-off extra program. It must be treated as a core tenet of how you do business.

Once you have an online sales process in place, it’s critical that you market it properly. Unless you were one of the progressive dealers doing this before COVID-19, you have some branding ground to make up! Consider dedicating a special budget specifically to this initiative; treating it like a separate business unit. All potential media should be on the table for this initiative, both traditional and digital. Every market is different, so make sure you have an automotive marketing agency on your side, doing custom research for you to help you make these important decisions. You need to both influence the top of mind awareness of your market, as well as be there for searches for online buying. (Click here to read our article about current COVID-19 car-buying search trends.)

Whichever media you choose to run in, make sure your agency produces creative that demonstrates how easy your online buying process is, mentions how it saves people time, explains that it’s 100% from home and shows that it encompasses all aspects of the transaction – test drive, buy/lease, trade, finance and delivery. Consider “whitelisting” your vendor, if possible, with a unique brand name, so that it appears this is your exclusive program. And most importantly, make sure your agency spirally-integrates your message so that it’s “singing the same tune” across all media, That way you can leverage multi-channel frequency to ensure your message really takes hold in your market. High-frequency campaigns, with a consistent message, give you the best chance to stand out.

One day, hopefully sooner than later, COVID-19 will be over and the disruptions we’re all currently experiencing will go back to relatively normal. It may be tempting to think car-buying will also go back to the way it’s always been, but remember, online buying addresses a problem many consumers already had pre-COVID-19. The pandemic disrupted the industry and accelerated evolution. Will people enter showrooms again? Of course people will, and in many markets they are already. But make no mistake, 100% online buying is here to stay and its share of the market is only going to grow. The time for dealers to take action is now. How soon you integrate this essential process, how well you integrate it with your team and how effectively you market it will likely have lasting effects on your dealership or group’s future.

Whether you sell 30 or 3,000 cars a month, we can likely help you at CBC Automotive Marketing. When the time is right, let’s start a conversation.


Matt Hayward is Director of Business Development and a Senior Account Manager at CBC Automotive Marketing, a Maine ad agency working across the United States with successful dealerships and dealership groups.

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