Finding a Sustainable Middle Ground Between Dealers, Customers and OEMs

While digital channels have been embraced for many years in dealership sales and service operations, today, a number of OEMs believe there’s significant opportunity to offer a complete end-to-end purchase experience that happens entirely online.

But is that what customers really want? Or do consumers still value the in-person dealership experience – even if there are some elements of it they dislike? The answers may surprise you and should guide OEMs and dealers toward a thoughtful approach to creating the purchase processes of tomorrow.

October 18th, 2022

What Auto Buyers Say Versus
What Auto Buyers Do

While the majority of auto buyers we surveyed expect dealers to offer vehicle purchasing that happens solely online, far fewer respondents are actually open to purchasing that way – at least for now.

Our research also gleaned useful insights about the areas in which respondents expect dealers to innovate, and those insights can be summed up with a single word: choice. It’s clear from the data that auto buyers want the choice to purchase entirely online – even if, at least for the time being, nearly two-thirds of them still aren’t choosing to leave the traditional in-person sales process behind just yet.

Dealers Embrace Giving Consumers Choices in the Digital Future.

As OEMs continue to look toward the future of automotive retail – including the potential for full-online purchases – our research shows they have support among dealers.

In general, the dealers we surveyed see related OEM programs as opportunities to boost sales, keep up with digital trends and provide flexible options to consumers in an increasingly competitive environment.

While widescale all-digital retailing programs will take time to develop and optimize, dealers are investing – and need to continue to invest – in the future while focusing on meeting the combination of digital and physical touchpoints consumers are demanding in the short term.

The Challenges of the Omnichannel Reality

Auto buyers have more digital purchase and experience choices available to them than ever before, but in-person interactions are still preferred each step of the way. Our data, however, suggests OEMs and dealers have to be diligent in keeping pace with auto buyers’ evolving omnichannel preferences.


Auto Buyers’ Purchase
Journey Preferences

To understand the full purchase journey story, it’s important to look at auto-buyer perceptions of the various elements that comprise the sales process. Note the value of the in-person experience is most evident at two critical points along the journey: test drives and vehicle setup and orientation. Traditional consumer pain points of negotiation and contract/financing (and, to a lesser degree, vehicle selection) are better positioned as online options for consumer convenience.

Perception Is Reality.

While our findings show some auto buyers are open to using digital platforms for many steps in the car buying process, there are several important areas of the in-person experience they still perceive to deliver greater value.

When presented with three buying options …
• Buying through a dealership in person
• Buying through a manufacturer website directly, fully online
• Buying through a dealership’s website directly, fully online
… auto buyers consistently report that in-person buying best delivers on the following benefits:

Digital Tools and the Need
for OEM-Dealer Alignment

Dealers continue to forge ahead on their paths to create seamless, meaningful digital connections with those in need (or likely to be in need) of their services.

Even with the best intentions, automotive manufacturers and dealers aren’t always on the same page. The result: shoppers may receive calls to action that are confusing or unable to be fulfilled by dealers. For instance, a manufacturer may send a trade-in offer a dealer can’t honor – or would be financially detrimental for a dealer to honor – or divert would-be customers online without knowing the channel preference of the message recipient. These are just a couple examples of how disconnected OEM and dealer channels can make it more difficult to nurture a customer from a touchpoint made to create interest to the final sale of a vehicle.

These inefficiencies can create confusion for dealers and OEMs, and more important, they can create a poor buying experience for the customer.

By creating a seamless omnichannel experience, both parties can guide auto buyers across channels to ensure a smooth buying experience from initial contact to final sale. We’ve included some of the most popular digital tools among dealerships to the right.

The good news: opportunities are abundant for OEMs and dealers to better align themselves to benefit all.

Opportunities for Dealers

  • Embrace – and continue to push forward with – digital retailing, but remain focused on current customer wants and needs.
  • Invest in processes, tools and technology to ensure seamless omnichannel opportunities that provide choices for all consumers.
  • Continue to push forward in activating new channels, processes and best practices that close gaps between existing channels.
  • Drive continued collaboration (and alignment) between OEMs/dealerships to avoid missteps that can create costly issues during the online purchase process (e.g., OEM trade-in evaluation overvalues vehicle, dealer loses money).

Conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Urban Science among 1,500 US adults aged 18+ who currently own or lease or plan to purchase or lease a new or used vehicle in the next 12 months. The auto buying public survey was conducted from December 23, 2021 to January 4, 2022. Data are weighted where necessary by age, gender, race/ethnicity, region, education, marital status, household size, employment, and household income and propensity to be online to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population.


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