First Pencil: Why Digital Retail is Like the Autonomous Vehicle

November 26, 2019
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.”