It has been 20 days since the world as we knew it was pulled out from underneath us. So many devastating things are happening to people I know and care deeply about, both on a personal and professional level. Local businesses have been shut down and people are being laid off or furloughed, many of whom can no longer make ends meet. It has a domino effect across our entire society. Like most of you, I find myself full of emotion– in a state of immense sadness, full of shock and concern as very few are left unscathed. I hold this in one hand, and very close to my heart, but in the other hand I hold something else — an intellectual curiosity about where we will find ourselves once the storm has passed.
I am fascinated with the changes happening before my eyes. My daughter is now taking virtual dance and piano lessons, while my son completes Boy Scout merit badges online. I have enough teachers in my life to know that they are struggling to learn video conferencing, Google Docs, and Google Classroom so that kids across the country can finish the school year virtually. People are sheltering at home but crave human connection. I can’t tell you how many virtual happy hours I have attended, or how many smiles and waves I have gotten from neighbors as we go outside to stretch our legs.
Professional relationships are key to moving the automotive industry forward
I have also been checking in on beloved dealer partners and other industry friends each day. I see people banning together professionally in deeper and more personal relationships than ever before — everyone committed to helping the automotive industry get back on its feet. Competition has been put aside and everyone is sharing what they are seeing and doing willingly and openly.
Regardless of where you sit in the automotive ecosystem– everyone is impacted by car sales. Dealerships are on the front line of this and while the impact has been different across the country, everyone is suffering– some are open for business, but walk-in traffic has dwindled; others have only their service department open for parts and repairs. Many have had to completely shut their doors, laying off huge portions of their staff in order to survive. Dealership employees are either working from home, or as part of a skeleton crew with social distancing in place behind locked doors.
Yet, people are still shopping for cars
With everyone at home and technology usage skyrocketing, those in need of a new vehicle during these unprecedented times are visiting dealership websites, submitting leads, and starting the deal-making process from the safety of their home.
At Roadster, we have been monitoring online traffic volumes closely and on a national level, the number of people shopping now vs. pre-COVID-19 has remained fairly flat. Of course, this varies greatly by the metro area and brand, but even in the areas most significantly impacted by coronavirus cases, dealerships have maintained 60-70% of their traffic.
So, here we are as an industry. Our physical doors may be closed, but our digital doors are wide open. What an interesting world we have found ourselves in. If you dial back to NADA, which now feels like a lifetime ago, most dealerships across the country were in “wait and see” mode as it relates to online commerce. No one was doubting that the car buying process needed to be modernized, but there were serious concerns about staff buy-in, process change requirements, and bottom-line impact. So, while there was a growing percentage of dealerships embracing digital retailing capabilities, the vast majority weren’t prepared for what was about to happen.
Dealerships who embraced digital retailing before the pandemic are ahead of the curve.
I have spoken to dozens of our dealer partners over the past few weeks and the one thing I have consistently heard is that they felt prepared. They had done the work months (and in many cases years) ago to evolve their sales process, empower their teams, and train their personnel on what it means to provide a guided online buying experience. They had already moved past the “get them in” appointment mentality and into a world of efficiency — encouraging customers to do some, if not all, of the buying process online. Sure, their sales are drastically down, and like many, they had to cut their teams back, but they knew exactly whom to keep and how to operate. There was no huge pivot in the sales process, other than remote test drives and the litany of safety protocols they now have to follow during delivery.
These digital-enabled dealers are watching other dealerships scramble to catch up — sometimes within their own dealer groups. They know from experience that it requires more than a plug and play solution. It took them months of planning and training to get the process down and now the rest of the dealer community needs to do that work in days and weeks, not months. You see, the truth about digital retailing tools, and any technology really– it is 20% technology and 80% what you do with it. It is about evolving the way you have always done things, the roles you have always had, and sometimes even the people who have been there forever. It is about making hard choices, streamlining the process and cutting costs out of the equation. I know as an industry we talk about modernizing the experience for consumers, and that has never been truer as we focus on the health and safety of our customers — but it is equally as important to optimize our businesses to survive.
The truth about digital retailing– it is 20% technology and 80% what you do with it.
So, as we stare catastrophe in the face, we find ourselves as an industry forced into optimization overnight. It is scary. But know, you do not need to go at it alone. Lean on your dealer friends who have done the work already, and your partners in the ecosystem to help you fast track through it.
What will our businesses look like post-COVID-19? What will any business look like for that matter? The world around us is being optimized for virtual and online activity. We are training our country on just how much can be done remotely. There is no doubt in my mind that life as we knew it will be changed forever.
Just remember, we’re all in this together, and as an industry, we will weather the storm united.
Michelle Denogean is the Chief Marketing Officer of Roadster, the leading Commerce Platform for the automotive industry, where she oversees Marketing, Insights & Analytics.