Retailers shifting toward a contactless service-and-sales model are making inroads in an economy shaped by the rules of COVID-19.
Wendy Bulmer, general manager of Acura of Moncton in New Brunswick, said that in December her dealership moved to a digital sales platform. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the dealership ramped up local advertising, touting its contactless capabilities for purchasing a vehicle.
Acura of Moncton ended May just three vehicles shy of its original sales target and received 200 leads in April, compared with 80-90 in a typical month, said Bulmer.
While some clients still “want to come in and drive the car,” Bulmer expects the shift to contactless retail to become permanent.
“The customer experience is what it’s all about. I can’t see customers suddenly deciding they want to spend six hours with us on a Saturday to do a deal.”
At Riverside Chrysler-Dodge-JeepRam in Prince Albert, Sask., General Manager Trent Hargrave said digital retailing as well as concierge services have helped generate sales.
“We’ve accelerated stuff we were kind of dipping our toes in, in terms of service pickups and deliveries and remote sales,” said Hargrave.
“We’re still able to generate some sales activity, but the tone of the calls is different. But that’s OK.”
That tone is being set by customers wary about visiting dealerships or those knowing even more about what vehicle they want when they walk through the door.
“Everything was going digital anyway. We all know that,” said Tammy Roach, dealer principal at Charlottetown Mitsubishi on Prince Edward Island. “But people are coming through the door knowing what they want because they know what we have.
“Before, people would have an idea and would sort of peruse the website. But now I think they’re building and pricing more before they come through the door.”
‘EVERYONE IS WORRIED’
Despite a “fairly busy” month of May, Roach said, consumers’ fears about contracting the virus persist, as do worries about a potential second wave later in the year.
“People are a little more comfortable, but not everybody is comfortable,” she said. “There’s a population out there that wouldn’t come in, and I think everyone is worried about a second wave. That makes me a little nervous from a business perspective.
“Will we have to shut down again? Nobody knows.”
Christopher Pfaff, CEO of Pfaff Automotive Partners, said customers are seeking contactless service. Pfaff dealerships in Ontario and British Columbia have been equipped with kiosks that allow service customers to drop off their vehicle and keys and retrieve keys for a loaner vehicle at any time and without making contact with a dealership employee.
“That’s a big convenience for clients, and that, I think, will never change,” Pfaff said. “It’s just like how you used to check in at the airlines at the counter, but now you check in on a computer screen.”
BUYERS, BE AWARE
Managing expectations as well as preparing customers for procedures stemming from health and safety protocols have been key to helping them adjust to a new normal that no longer includes courtesy shuttles and waiting areas, said Alex Digenis, who owns two franchised dealerships and a used-vehicle store in Ontario’s Niagara region.
“None of these protocols are convenient. But what we have found is through our communication videos, our written instructions and our call centre, we are setting expectations and telling people exactly what will happen,” said Digenis, dealer principal at Subaru of Niagara and Henley Honda.
Before arriving at the dealerships, service customers receive “instructions from our call centre team,” he said. “You get a video sent to you walking you through what happens when you get to the store. You get written instructions on the steps and what to expect.”
Once customers arrive, signs posted outside the service area guide them through the steps, such as dropping off keys and filling in and depositing order forms, Digenis said.
“Despite the inconvenience, our customer-satisfaction scores have increased. Our dollars per work order have also improved.”
Appointments, however, “take twice as long to book because we’re telling you what’s going to happen. Then we send it to you in writing, in pictures and in videos.”
The dealership also sends service customers videos featuring technicians explaining needed repairs.
The videos, called Tech Talks, were the brainchild of Digenis’ son, Jaydon, who hosts them. He works at Henley Honda.
“The technician gives you a report on your vehicle. We want to be transparent; we want you to see what’s happening under your car right now,” said Digenis, adding that the videos are designed to replace the face-to-face contact that has been hampered by physical-distancing requirements.
At Birchwood Automotive Group in Winnipeg, CEO Steve Chipman said some of his sales staff are turning to YouTube videos to provide customers vehicle walk-arounds, although not all of his employees are proficient with the technology.
“We’re trying to get more and more people to do that, but it’s a challenge, given what they’ve done before. We have to adapt.”