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Dealers acted quickly when COVID arrived, webinar panelists agree

Friday, March 05, 2021 6:02 PM | Anonymous
COVID-19 has wrought overwhelming negatives to the auto-retailing world, but in one respect it’s had an unwittingly positive effect: It accelerated progressive projects that had been in the works or were on the drawing board, said participants in a Feb. 16 WardsAuto/Ally Insurance webinar, "The Consumer Revolution and the Auto Retailing Future."
Panelist Ronald MacEachern of the Troy, Michigan-based Suburban Collection described what happened when the dealership group resumed showroom sales after a state-imposed pandemic-related shutdown in early 2020.
"When we reopened, we went from thinking to acting fast" in executing new initiatives, said MacEachern, Suburban’s platform vice president and general manager.
"Before, one store had DocuPAD (an interactive tabletop digital device that aids in finance and insurance menu presentations and document processing). Within three months, all the stores had it. I was encouraged by how quickly we adapted."
In retrospect, "We’ve made more changes in the last six months than in the last 10 years," he said. "It was a bad couple of months (March and April 2020) — more than we could ever have imagined. But more importantly, we positioned ourselves for 2021 and beyond."
He anticipates Suburban and dealers in general will do well this year, especially ones that have been "practicing and working out."
The dark days of auto retailing "offered an opportunity to look in the mirror and analyze some things we had talked about, and then implemented," said Ryan LaFontaine, CEO of the Highland, Michigan-based LaFontaine Automotive Group.
"It changed our mindset," he said. "It was an education in adversity. We got a great education there."
For one thing, it resulted in greater employee accountability, especially when it came to adapting to new ways. "A lot of employees can be resistant to change. This (the pandemic) forced change," LaFontaine said. 
He noted home delivery of purchased or serviced vehicles "has been around for 20 years," but not as a regular offering. Now it is.
The LaFontaine group is poised for a "gangbuster" 2021, its CEO said, noting the need to focus on both customers and "the controllables."
The ability of large dealership operations such as Suburban and LaFontaine "to get ahead of the curve (serves as an example) for smaller players to get in the digital hunt," said webinar panelist Patrick Hennessey of Ally Insurance.
Whether a car consumer prefers to shop online or at the dealership, LaFontaine said the same process applies. "We make sure we accommodate them wherever they want to connect."
In a self-critique of its digital retailing efforts, MacEachern said Suburban "had the process down, but we didn’t have the proper handoff from when people went offline and into the store."
Now, staffers meet daily to discuss how to make that transition seamless, especially in knowing at what point in the car-buying process customers are when they visit the store.
"We’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet," said MacEachern.  "But it’s got to happen."
It requires dealer diligence to know what shopping and research consumers have done digitally and what vehicles they’ve shown an interest in. Surveys indicate consumers expect dealership staff to know that when they ultimately go to the store.
They don’t want to start from scratch in the showroom. "They don’t want to reset," said Hennessey, who added "nearly everyone looking to buy a car today starts online."
To accomplish that seamless transition from offline to in-store requires "everyone on the team pulling in the same direction," he said. Often, the best ways to make meaningful changes "are done in the trenches."
LaFontaine added, "If you don’t want a challenge, you shouldn’t be in business in the first place."
Still, he said, "Anyone who said they were prepared for (how COVID has affected business operations) is lying."
In conjunction with the webinar, Wards Intelligence and Ally surveyed dealers to gauge how the digital age might alter their operations, expectations and consumer buying habits.
Among the findings:
• Large dealership groups appear better prepared for digital sales than are smaller stores.
• Management tends to be more bullish than staff regarding internet initiatives.
• Digital tools aren’t seen by most respondents as a way to reduce inventory through build-to-order customization.
• Selling consumers F&I products online remains a challenge. Customers initially may become familiar with those products online, but most surveyed dealers expect completing the F&I process will remain at the dealership.

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