From stocking up on groceries, to buying their next vehicle, consumers are ready to move online, digital retailing experts say, creating serious challenges for Canadian dealerships still fine-tuning ways to service customers in both the real and digital realms.
Automotive retailers unable to meet buyers at all access points will see customers go elsewhere, said Brent Marshall, one of four digital retailing panelists at the 2023 Automotive News Canada Congress in Toronto Feb. 16.
“Consumers want to do this online. … They expect it to be smooth, and it’s not right now,” said Marshall, who is owner of Omni Auto, which provides a broad range of omnichannel services to dealerships looking to stay ahead of the curve.
Omnichannel refers to technology and processes aimed at providing a seamless buying experience for consumers whether they shop online, in-store or both.
Since the pandemic, consumers have been shifting decidedly toward this hybrid buying approach, said Claudia Sciama, managing director for automotive, consumer goods and telco at Google Canada.
“Things that were innovation in the past are now table stakes.”
Vehicle sales taking place entirely online remain limited, she said, but are on the upswing.
ONLINE SALES INCREASING SLOWLY
Online sales accounted for six per cent of vehicle sales in Canada last year, up from one per cent prior to the pandemic, she said. They also accounted for 12 per cent of EV sales in 2022.
Looking ahead, consumers are poised to further embrace online purchasing. Sciama said her data shows 54 per cent of all Canadian vehicle buyers and 62 per cent of EV buyers say they would be comfortable purchasing their next vehicle online.
“People are ready to buy a car online, and we need to be ready to provide a good experience,” Sciama said.
Having the right blend of tools, however, is a challenge, said Linda Frey, vice-president of marketing at the Policaro Group an Ontario-based dealership group that focuses on luxury brands.
“Everybody who owns a dealership or dealer groups knows that the systems are antiquated,” but there are ways to tap into the proper channels, she said.
Policaro has built a range of custom capabilities to streamline the digital customer experience. The tools engage customers through the earlier stages of the buying process, though today, they stop short of performing the final vehicle transaction. Frey said she is seeing little appetite so far from customers wanting to take care of the finer points such as a credit check or signing the papers online, but she is not writing off carrying the process through to completion in the future.
The goal is not to dictate to customers, but give them choice, Frey added.
'GIVE THEM WHAT THEY NEED'
“It’s about us trying to give them what they need, and some people do want to come into the dealership and some people don’t. So, provide both.”
Particularly in the social media realm, creating the right environment for customers to interact is integral, said Kevin O'Rourke, country manager for Canada at social media services company Dealers United.
“There really has become this nomadic customer that has started to surface … it’s less about trying to find the audience than it is about having the audience find you.”
Interacting with consumers on social channels is one step in the buying process, but should not always revolve around the purchase itself, he added, pointing to brand- and culture-building posts as important as well.
“E-commerce doesn’t have to be credit card, submit, and go.”
As the industry embraces omnichannel best practices, there is also room for experimentation.
If there were a right and wrong way to go about online sales, retailers would already have the “$1 million answer,” Sciama said.
Dealerships should instead approach the digital realm with a “test and learn” mentality, she said.
“This is how you build a good impactful omnichannel strategy that probably is different than others because it is based on your data.”