It appears reports of the F&I manager’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.That was the big revelation to come out my discussion with one of the analysts of a consumer poll conducted this past February by The Harris Poll on behalf of Urban Science. The study gathered responses from 2,001 U.S. consumers age 18 and over.

The individual I spoke to was Randy Berlin, who serves as global director of dealer consulting. My line of questioning began with whether the study’s findings refuted all those consumer studies published earlier this decade, and what the new finding meant for the future of digital retailing.

“We were surprised, too. We had no idea what they were going to come back with,” Berlin said, adding that his firm expected The Harris Poll to come back with findings that point to consumers, especially younger generations, wanting a more click-to-buy experience.

“But what the research told us is that younger generations have no brand identity or loyalty, so they don’t know what to buy,” he said, highlighting the most critical takeaway from the study. See, whereas boomers like Berlin have experience purchasing vehicles and have an affinity toward certain vehicle brands, the young people are just not brand loyal — “… except for maybe Apple,” Berlin quipped.

According to the study, Generation Z and young millennials — the two demographics every consumer study said would skip the dealership experience altogether — visit, on average, 3.5 dealerships before pulling the trigger.

Remember when those shopper studies also told us consumers were visiting less than two dealerships, and those visits would continue to decline in the Amazon Age? Well, older millennials, Gen X, and boomers are visiting, on average, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.2 dealerships, respectively.

What surprised Berlin and researchers at The Harris Poll is the unwillingness of younger consumers to buy a vehicle without seeing it. Overall, seven out of 10 respondents said they would never buy a vehicle without a dealership. Eighty-five percent of respondents also agreed a vehicle is too big an investment to risk not seeing it before they buy.

These insights led Berlin to the most stunning conclusion to come out out of his analysis — that younger car buyers desire the knowledge of a well-trained F&I professional. “These younger folks don’t know what they can afford. So there’s uncertainty there, where they need help understanding their finance options and what they mean for them,” Berlin said.

So, does all that mean digital retailing is dead? Not according to Berlin.

The dealer consultant said car buyers, particularly younger consumers, want to do as much as they can online. “Remember, for many of these younger consumers, it’s their first purchase,” he said. “So they rely on the expertise of the dealer to help them get through the process.”

Berlin knows they’re online because, according to the study, the average car buyer is submitting, on average, three lead forms. The reason is consumers want to make sure they’re getting a good deal, so they’re cross-checking pricing. And dealers, for the most part, have embraced this desire for pricing transparency. That’s why 81% of survey respondents said they trust the information they receive from an OEM dealership.

“So they know invoice. They know everything about it,” Berlin said. “But a majority of consumers aren’t coming in to write a check. So price is one thing, but then, as you relate that to the payment, is it a two-year lease, three-year lease, a 48-month loan, a 60-month loan, or 72. That’s where the F&I manager really starts to play a role.”

This is where things got interesting. Berlin equated digital retailing to autonomous vehicles, noting that “a majority of people aren’t raising their hand and saying, “I’m all in on that.”

“But if you think about it, from autonomous vehicles, we’ve seen a lot of safety features come out of that, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warnings, and automatic stopping,” he continued. “Digital retailing is synonymous with that: I can do most of the transaction online line, and it’s more than just submitting a credit application. It’s a doc you can sign electronically and those sorts of things. Then I go to the dealership to complete the transaction because I want to see the vehicle.”

And to Berlin, consumers are only going to want more of this experience. The challenge for software providers like my employer is to show dealers how these digital retailing platforms work with their current process. It has to be seamless.

“Like what we’ve learned from the whole autonomous vehicle, when it comes to digital retailing, however the customer wants to engage and transact with you, it has to be the same process,” Berlin said. “They don’t want to have to start over.”

“Younger buyers still want the dealership,” read the headline for Automotive News’ Aug. 12 report on a new study from Urban Science. The firm surveyed approximately 2,000 shoppers in February, 75% of whom said they would not buy a vehicle without a dealer involved.

Inspiring the headline were findings indicating that the youngest generations shop the highest number of brick-and-mortar dealerships, with Gen Z and young millennials visiting, on average, 3.8 and 2.6 stores before pulling the trigger. These are the generations all those industry studies said didn’t like the dealership experience, hated the F&I office, and might even stop buying cars.

Well, those studies appear to be wrong. In fact, according to a column penned by J.D. Power researcher Maya Ivanova for Auto Remarketing magazine, “Fears that Gen Y… would turn their backs on the all-American car-buying tradition are unfounded.”

The research also noted that Gen Y shoppers “mostly like to close the deal at the dealership.”

I know of a few “traditionalists” who are grinning ear to ear over these findings, believing they refute all that talk about dealers needing to step into the Digital Age. I believe the opposite. My takeaway is the stats serve as an endorsement of the industry’s efforts to get dealers to embrace the internet, and I believe they point to the digital experience growing in importance in the years ahead — that’s if we can erase the mistakes of tech marketers in recent years.

So what brings me to those conclusions? For starters, the line about Gen Y being OK with closing deals at the dealership opens with the following: “While every millennial starts the buying journey digitally…”

The Automotive News article also notes that 81% of the auto shoppers polled indicated that they “trust the information they receive from a franchised dealership.” Think about that for a second: 81% of your customers say they trust the information you send them. Wait, it gets better.

Seventy-two percent of survey respondents said the salesperson is becoming a trusted advisor. Wow, right? Well, 75% of survey respondents also said they would not want to buy a vehicle without a dealer involved.

So what happened to all that talk about consumers wanting to avoid the dealership experience? Well, thanks to your digital marketing and advertising efforts, car buyers know if stores are “retailing the same vehicle for $10,000 to $10,500, then that is the price of that vehicle.” That’s what Reedman-Toll Auto Group’s Moshe Schoopachevich said in a new report we developed in partnership with Automotive News.

“They look at Kelly Blue Book and Edmunds, too,” he noted, adding, “What the internet really did was end haggling.”

Back in 2015, Google broke down the car-buying process in the Internet Age into five moments:

  • Which-car-is-best moments
  • Is-it-right-for-me moments
  • Can-I-afford-it moments
  • Where-should-I-buy-it moments
  • Am-I-getting-a-deal moments

Now consider all the digital techniques your store employs daily and monthly to help consumers through those moments. Yeah, those studies might point to consumers not minding the dealership experience, but it’s because of everything you do online to reel them in.

As for whether those findings make an argument against digital retailing, I don’t think they do. I believe consumers are just now learning what’s possible from a car-shopping perspective. And I believe their expectation will only grow in the years to come, but not at the expense of the dealership experience.

See, I think the term “digital retailing” has gotten a bad name in our industry, mainly because of the missteps of tech marketers. They believed the best way to market their solutions was to bash the people they’re designed to help, and they used the buying habits of today’s younger generations to do so.

Hey, calling dealers antiquated because they’re process-driven is no way to get them to buy into your vision of the future. Dealers are process-driven because they know a proven process delivers results, because the state and federal laws governing their activities demand it, and because not every customer has an 800 credit score.

The good news is I think marketers are finally coming around. It’s why we see terms like “connected retail” and “omnichannel retailing” being used to describe “digital retailing.”

As I’ve always been told, buying a car is the second biggest purchase a consumer will make, and it should be treated as such. However, digitizing low-value steps in your sales process, such as filling out a credit app, should be something you embrace. It makes the process more efficient, saves labor, and allows your team to focus on high-value activities like selling cars, F&I products, and the expertise of your service department. That’s the true promise of digital retailing.