TORONTO — Physical dealerships and the customer relationship will remain important to auto retail even as the industry experiments with new ways of generating sales, Canadian auto executives at the recent Automotive News Canada Congress.
Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano, one of three executives on the panel that convened Feb. 13 in Toronto, said the relationships salespeople have with their customers, as well as the trust customers develop at dealership service bays, help to “make the wheels turn” in retail.
Still, he acknowledged that it is necessary for automakers and dealers to experiment as consumer preferences change and as new competitors and business models emerge, pointing to Tesla Inc.’s direct-sales model as an example.
“We have to continue to invest in those areas, but we also have to realize that there are barbarians at the gate,” Romano said. Tesla CEO “Elon [Musk] is climbing up the mountain, and it’s time to push him down. And we’ll do it together.”
Questions surround traditional dealership business model, largely unchanged for decades, amid changing consumer shopping habits and the emergence of automotive and retail start-ups.
Infiniti Canada Managing Director Adam Paterson said his brand was working to make the car-shopping experience more flexible and convenient for its customers. The brand, for instance, is examining launching an extended test-drive program with the car-sharing company Turo that would allow customers to drive a vehicle they are interested in for a matter of days.
Still, he said Infiniti sees physical showrooms remaining crucial for the brand in the immediate future.
“I still don’t think most [buyers] are going to transact online exclusively in the short-term,” he said. “Therefore, is it a huge challenge today? I’m not sure. But tomorrow? I think we do have to watch it.”
Volvo Canada Managing Director Matt Girgis said the brand was focused in large part on improving the customer experience at dealerships, saying the company is working with its Canadian stores to figure out how to best serve potential buyers as shopping habits shift.
“Customer demands continue to climb up,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of energy and investment with our retailers on customer experience… It’s going to take some time. We’ve made some very good progress on it, and now as we go into 2020, we’re going to continue that journey, as well.”